Dark enough skies? County concerned with street light impacts on Naval Observatory

As Williams considers street light replacement, Coconino County has asked the city to revise its dark sky ordinance to accommodate new technology. (Wendy Howell/WGCN)

As Williams considers street light replacement, Coconino County has asked the city to revise its dark sky ordinance to accommodate new technology. (Wendy Howell/WGCN)

WILLIAMS, Ariz. — As Coconino County nears completion on its Joint Land Use Study (JLUS), the subject of dark night skies in Williams has come to the forefront.

Coconino County Supervisor Matt Ryan, Colonel Ray G. Garcia of Camp Navajo, Senior Engineer Mike DiVittorio of the Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station and Coconino County Community Development Director Jay Christleman met with the Williams City Council Jan. 24 to discuss Williams’ current dark sky ordinance and ask the city to partner with the county in updating the ordinance to reflect new technologies.

Ryan said although the Joint Land Use Study doesn’t officially include Williams, maintaining dark night skies for aesthetics and military objectives is important for all communities in northern Arizona.

The Joint Land Use Study is a cooperative land use planning effort between local governments and military installations. The study focuses primarily on the greater Flagstaff area but also includes Bellemont and areas west towards Parks.

“It’s a plan, not an ordinance or a code,” said Christleman regarding the Joint Land Use Study. “It creates a body of information that supports informed decision making.”

The JLUS is a partnership between the U.S. Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station, the Arizona Army National Guard Camp Navajo, the city of Flagstaff, and Coconino County, with participants from the Navajo Nation, Lowell Observatory, the U.S. Forest Service and many other entities.

The plan is meant to encourage cooperative land use planning between military installations and the surrounding communities to ensure community growth and development are compatible with military training and operations.

One of the issues touched in the JLUS was the effect light pollution in the area could have on the Naval Observatory’s mission.

“I keep a pulse on the strategic events in the Department of Defense and the Army, and the bottom line is without what the Navy does, we couldn’t function,” Garcia said of Camp Navajo’s relationship with the Naval Observatory. “They are a critical asset to all of the Department of Defense on a daily basis here and across the globe.”

Garcia supported Ryan and joined him in asking Williams to look at its dark sky ordinance and consider the county’s recommendations.

“It will greatly help us all in our efforts and I don’t say that lightly,” he said.

Ryan said although the county is in the beginning stages of developing recommendations for street lighting, he asked the Williams City Council to engage in talks with the county prior to any new city lighting projects. He said the county is looking at specific recommendations from the city of Flagstaff’s Street Lighting for Enhancing Dark Skies (SLEDS) Project study conducted in 2015.

SLEDS’ objective was to find a solution to Flagstaff’s current street lighting predicament while balancing dark skies, safety and maintenance cost effectiveness objectives.

The SLEDS Project was the result of several years of discussions between Flagstaff and United States Naval Observatory in Flagstaff and Lowell Observatory. At that time, the city found itself in a lighting predicament as they looked to replace their current city lights.

The project has allowed Flagstaff to demonstrate to other municipalities a lighting solution for dark sky preservation with Light Emitting Diode (LED) technology that achieves the objectives for safety and cost effectiveness, while maintaining dark skies for astronomical objectives.

Ryan said the concern with modifying the city of Williams dark sky ordinance is the city’s street lights, not necessarily lights on businesses.

He said he was aware the city of Williams was looking at replacing the bulbs in their streets lights and was hoping to share the dark sky recommendations prior to the replacement.

“We just ask if you are looking at modifying your street lighting, could you pause on those decisions and take a look at what these recommendations are,” he said. “It might change the type of lighting fixtures you are looking at purchasing.”

The Naval Observatory completed a Mission Compatibility Light Pollution Study in Dec. 2017. The study looked at what impact development could have on the NOFS’ observing conditions and evaluated whether the current lighting code standards were compatible with the long-term ability of the NOFS to fulfill the Department of Defense missions.

The leadership identified that 10 percent brightening over current conditions was the maximum allowed increase to maintain mission capability.

They found that without effective lighting management in the region, sky brightening at NOFS is anticipated to exceed the limit.

Moore said the city was evaluating options for replacement street lights and has put the decision on hold until councilmembers could meet with the county.

“We definitely want to participate with the group, but we don’t want to wait around forever waiting for more studies,” Moore said. “We want to get it done.”

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