Letter To The Editor: Preserving The Night Sky With An Updated Lighting Ordinance

By DIDIER SAUMON and GALEN GISLER
Los Alamos

Los Alamos County is in the process of updating its codes and ordinances (“Section 16”). This letter addresses the Outdoor lighting ordinance (section 16-276), which was adopted during the reconstruction of the Western Area after the Cerro Grande Fire.

Residents were strongly opposed to the planned addition of many more streetlights than had originally been installed in the neighborhood, which they deemed had always been adequate.

The residents fought hard against the county plans and wrote an ordinance that was ultimately adopted by the county council.

Two shortcomings have emerged in its 15 years of existence:

  • First, the advent of LED lights has dramatically changed the landscape of outdoor lighting and the ordinance should be updated to reflect this new technology.
  • Second, the ordinance is not enforced uniformly, if at all. The quality of the lighting designs in new developments and buildings in Los Alamos County since the ordinance was passed varies considerably. Observations of the night sky in White Rock show a steady increase in sky brightness during that period.

Residents and visitors to our area enjoy astronomical activities. Bandelier National Monument, the Valles Caldera Preserve, the village of Jemez Springs and the Los Luceros Historic Site have all held viewing events that were very popular, sometimes overwhelmingly so.

The Pajarito Astronomers have been holding events at Overlook Park for three decades. The White Rock Public Library loans a small telescope that is almost always checked out. Planetariums show and viewing events held at PEEC are also very popular.

Currently, there is great public interest in viewing Comet NEOWISE, the brightest comet to visit us since 1997. As seen from White Rock, the comet is within the dome of light above Los Alamos and its ethereal beauty is tarnished.

All these activities are threatened by increased artificial lighting in the county.

Because infrastructure is built to last decades, decisions that are made now will have long lasting consequences. To preserve and improve the visual appeal of Los Alamos and White Rock after dark, to improve the safety of drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, to limit the impact on night sky viewing activities, wildlife and human health, attention must be given to the design of outdoor lighting, with a uniform application of an updated lighting ordinance.

Examples of effective lighting ordinances are readily available, and the county can draw on the experience of several towns and cities that have successfully implemented them. Adopting a modern and effective lighting ordinance in LA county should be a fairly straightforward matter.

Visitors to New Mexico, who often come from large cities, invariably comment about the beauty of the night sky in our state. The night sky is as much a part of the Land of Enchantment as its mountains, canyons, archeological sites and parks. It behooves us to preserve it for the benefit and wellbeing of all.

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