Weber County Commissioners take steps to safeguard upper valley's dark skies

Wednesday , June 28, 2017 - 5:15 AM

CATHY MCKITRICK, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — All three Weber County Commissioners spoke in support of North Fork Park’s dark sky designation while voting to update the upper Ogden Valley’s lighting ordinance Tuesday, but differed on how to preserve the area’s spectacular starry nights for future generations. 

According to Weber County planning staff, the changes are intended to provide clearer outdoor lighting standards that support dark-sky viewing, astrotourism, North Fork Park’s bronze accreditation and objectives contained in the Ogden Valley General Plan.

RELATED: North Fork Park receives rare Dark Sky designation

After lengthy public input and discussion, Commissioner Kerry Gibson was the lone no-vote against the update, arguing that it went too far and infringed on private property rights. He urged voluntary incentives rather than mandates.

“When we tell someone what type of lighting fixture they’re going to put on their home ... what is the next step?” Gibson asked.

But Commission Chairman James Ebert and Commissioner Jim Harvey voted in favor of the proposed updates that came before the Ogden Valley Planning Commission in February, yielding a 4-1 recommendation for fully shielded, downward-focused outdoor lighting that prevents overflow to the neighbors. The ordinance would mandate compliance for all future commercial structures, a five-year phase-in of existing commercial structures, and compliance for all new residential structures. In addition, any remodels or changes to light fixtures on existing homes would need to comply with the new standard.

The existing ordinance dates back to 2000 and is credited with helping to pave the way for North Fork’s dark sky designation 15 years later.

After dueling motions, commissioners Ebert and Harvey ultimately approved the Planning Commission’s recommended changes but extended the five-year phase-in of existing commercial structures to 10. They also voiced their intent to downgrade all land-use penalties from criminal to civil, but that comprehensive action will need to to be addressed later.

While most in attendance agreed on the need to preserve the beauty of the night sky, the discussion grew contentious over mandates versus incentives. Some also objected to penalties associated with non-compliance. In its present form, all land-use violations can result in a class C misdemeanor, but only after letters have been sent to property owners urging compliance. 

Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, spoke against the proposed mandates.

“It takes away personal freedom, property rights and the rights of individuals to make decisions on what they think is best rather than what some form of government may feel ...  people will do the right thing,” Froerer said, also voicing concerns about costs associated with enforcement. “Let’s use the carrot approach rather than take out the baseball bat, looking at making part of your law enforcement what I call light-bulb police.”

But Hooper City Councilwoman Lori Brinkerhoff weighed in with a different take.

“It’s all in the implementation ... its just having some muscle and saying we have this here on file. Remind them through letters,” Brinkerhoff said. “It doesn’t mean we go out and arrest them, that we’re knocking on doors and putting on handcuffs.”

Some supported the proposed changes as a way to boost the area’s long term economic viability.

“In addition to the temperature drop and so on, we can have a recreational place that’s quite different from just five minutes away. That’s kind of a big deal when you think about what we’re trying to do in terms of the economy ... We are competing with Ketchum (Idaho) and Telluride (Colorado)  and Springdale (Utah),” South Fork resident Kim Wheatley told Commissioners. He was among the planning commissioners who approved Ogden Valley’s first lighting ordinance in 2000.

Dakota Hyde of Ogden manages businesses in Eden and Huntsville. He spoke in support of incentive-based solutions that preserve the dark skies.

“I recently acquired an 8-inch telescope from a professor at Weber State. We are planning on building an observatory as an amenity in Huntsville as part of a 15-room inn,” Hyde said. “I think it is a very good thing to be focused on the dark sky initiative right now ... It’s easy to pollute the night sky with light. You have the opportunity to do something very special in a small mountain valley with three resorts.”

Zach Thomas, a senior at Weber High School, also weighed in on the importance of preserving the night sky. He serves as president of the Astronomy Club, founded the Weber High Dark Sky Preservation Alliance and helps organize star parties.

“I think when our skies are dark, more people are going to come up and it’s going to help businesses,” Thomas said.

Eden resident Marion Horna, who said he’s a dark sky volunteer, urged them not to postpone action because “time is short.”

“Every day I see another house being built,” Horna said. “And I think y’all need to do something pretty quickly here. I don’t think people need to be thrown in jail ... (but) this is the time to move forward with something that has teeth in it because we’re going to lose our dark skies otherwise.”

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

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