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Public hearing elicits many shades to outdoor lighting debate in Wasatch County

A resident addresses Chair Spencer Park (center), Councilmember Kendall Crittenden (right) and the rest of the Wasatch County Council at a public hearing at the Wasatch County Senior Center Wednesday, as dozens behind him wait their turn.

KPCW | By Ben Lasseter

After a more than five-hour public hearing on outdoor lighting rules, the Wasatch County Council said it was close to a resolution but delayed any decision. Seventy residents voiced opinions that ranged from pro-light to dark-sky absolutist.

For churchgoers and stargazers, the application by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to overhaul lighting regulations carries implications for decades to come in the fast-growing Heber Valley. A code change could define how a future 200-foot-tall LDS temple — and other buildings — will look at night. Wasatch County Planning Director Doug Smith speaks at the Wasatch County Senior Center Wednesday, as dark skies consultant John Barentine (foreground) and County Manager Dustin Grabau (behind) look on.

Some 200 people filled the Wasatch County Senior Center Wednesday. Dozens flashed “Say ‘no’ to up lighting” messages repeatedly, while other signs read “I love to see the temple” and “Dark skies matter.”

Multiple options to cap light output are on the table. As county staff and an architect for the church explained the details, they referenced what they called “illuminating” testimony of a dark skies consultant.

After hours of public input, Councilman Kendall Crittenden thanked people and said he’ll lean on the consultant’s input when the time comes to vote on new rules.

“The best way to remove the emotion from the decision is to rely on the experts, and I know a lot of people who spoke today consider themselves experts, but they've not put their whole life in it,” Crittenden said. “I think we have some true experts — probably the best consultant we could in the whole United States. Thank you, Dr. Barentine.”

John Barentine of Dark Skies Consulting, LLC is based in Tucson, Arizona. That’s home to an LDS temple he said is similar to what the church has designed for Heber and is dark sky compliant.

He said there’s much overlap between what the church wants and what county planners predict will keep the starry sky visible above Wasatch County.

“It's my opinion that up lighting is not incompatible with dark skies. It’s all in how you do it,” Barentine said. “You have to very carefully apply that light, and lowering the intensity is the most important way that you can do it.”

He also said if restrictions only apply to commercial buildings and not neighborhoods, the county won’t comply with International Dark Sky Alliance standards.

He explained modern LED technology offers control over brightness and color warmth, which affects whether light appears orange or white. Color is measured in Kelvin, and brightness in lumens or candelas.

Despite testimony by a dark skies consultant that lights shining upward at night don't always cause light pollution, many in the public hearing crowd Wednesday used signs to oppose the allowance of up lighting in a code amendment.

Between the rules county planners recommended and what the church wants, the essential differences lie in those metrics. The church wants brighter and whiter lights than the county proposed, not an orange-ish hue on temple walls.

Barentine said if the council approves what county staff proposed, the county would become “one of the most progressive counties in the United States in terms of its central lighting policy.” Some residents said that might be overkill.

“Both proposals regarding the total lumens and this color are very low light limits and will put Wasatch County as one of the darkest counties around,” said Burke Rony of Center Creek. “Most are in favor of dark skies, but I don't think we need to make everything look orange and spooky.”

Many people said a compromise is a good path forward.

But some, like Kim Cliften of Heber City, took it a step further. She argued up lighting the temple would reflect what the country stands for: a belief in God and all kinds of churches. “I just am a lover of light, and light represents freedom to me,” Cliften said. “We've got citizens talking about what's happening with Heber and reducing light, which I respect and like that idea, too. We've got to also take into consideration this question: is it going to become a breeding ground for crime in the future by what we're doing with light? Crime lurks in dark places. It's true.” Heber City resident Lisa Meisner shared a different way the county lighting code will affect her spirituality.

“One of the things that I love most is walking my dog at night on the street under the beautiful stars overhead, and that's how I see God, is in the dark night sky,” Meisner said. “Please help preserve our beautiful rural county, and I support a more restrictive ordinance for us and potentially going for full dark sky certification.”

Lisa Bahash lives in Red Ledges and leads a group called Save Wasatch Back Dark Skies. She asked the county to take more time for review and to give her group a seat at the planning table.

She also said that in a survey the group conducted, more than 90% of 1,600 respondents supported strong dark sky protections. Bahash distributed the anti-up lighting signs that dozens of audience members held.

Meanwhile, J.W. Davies of the Center Creek region shared that over 3,000 people had signed his online petition entitled “Let the Light Shine on the Temple.” Nearly 70 people lined up over the course of Wednesday evening to speak at the public hearing on how Wasatch County should regulate outdoor lighting, and a handful of others shared their thoughts online via teleconference. Many said the Heber Valley’s rural character is central to the reasons the dark sky should be preserved.

Not Jake Harvath of Heber City — he said it’s too late because light shining from new homes over the past two decades has already polluted the sky.

Therefore, he didn’t oppose the church’s request for brighter light allowances.

“I know what a dark sky is,” Harvath said. “I'm having a hard time, listening to this discussion, holding back a laugh when I hear people talk about the rural aspect about this community. As a result, I have no opposition to the amendment proposed by the [church] and find it to be a completely reasonable application.”

Most people who spoke focused on lighting regulations, as required by meeting rules. But some opposed the temple project itself and questioned whether any applicant besides the church would have had the sway to initiate an amendment process. The church has held a groundbreaking but hasn’t submitted a site plan or building application for the temple yet.

Council members asked staff to review several details of the amendment in time for the April 19 regular meeting at the county administration building. Those included whether to enforce rules at residences, lighting curfews, code-specific lighting zones, holiday lighting exemptions and metrics for light brightness and warmth.

When audience members shouted that they had forgotten to include up lighting, Crittenden said that was intentional.

The full meeting is available to watch here.

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