City working to preserve dark skies


Last updated 8/8/2023 at 10:33am

Photo by Jarod Gatley

The spectacular night sky in Sisters Country is one of the draws to the area - but it is threatened by population growth and increased lighting.

The City of Sisters is trying to keep up with advances in technology in order to preserve Sisters' night skies. Last Thursday, the Sisters City Planning Commission discussed updating the City's current dark-skies standards and outdoor lighting ordinance in a work session at City Hall.

Updating the dark-sky standards is one of the City Council's 2023-24 goals. According to the project packet: "The purpose of the update is that the existing ordinance - which was last updated in 2010 - does not adequately address recent technological improvements in lighting, does not incorporate latest best practices that are beneficial in preserving the dark sky, and includes an outdated timeline for existing lights to be brought into conformance."

An outdoor lighting ordinance sets the standards for lighting the city streets, residences, and businesses at night, and how to best keep areas safe and well-lit while not contributing to light pollution. Light pollution decreases the visibility of the night sky.

The purpose of the dark- sky standards is to utilize responsible lighting practices to protect the resource of the night skies, preserve the viewing of the stars and planets, protect the wildlife that needs darkness, and many other factors that involve protecting the viewing of the night sky.

Astronomers and avid astro-photographers often travel to different areas to capture and study the night sky. Eastern Oregon and the Prineville Reservoir State Park are known nationally for being among the state's best night sky viewing areas. Those areas are just a short distance from Sisters Country, and there are spots here that are also compelling.

Sisters City Council and the planning commission want to figure out the best practices for keeping the town safe while also promoting best practices for dark- sky viewing.

This workshop aimed to continue workshopping ideas from a previous session.

The last work session was July 7, 2022, when the Planning Commission directed staff to do additional work before bringing new standards back for adoption, including public outreach with the community and businesses about the proposed ordinance and the costs to retrofit lighting; looking at the public lighting exemption – whether or not street lighting/string lights should be exempt from the ordinance; as well as the discussion about the length of time the ordinance allows for phasing out nonconforming lights.

Since the last work session, City staff has been working with Dark Sky Consulting LLC., which was brought on to help audit the current ordinances in the code. The firm has extensive experience advising local governments nationwide with their outdoor lighting ordinances and the Dark-Sky certification process if a community chooses to pursue it. The owner of the firm, John Barentine, joined the work session via Zoom as a resource to answer questions.

Community Development Director Scott Woodford presented to the Planning Commission the purpose of having the standards, different guiding principles of the use of lighting in the outdoors, different definitions of light casting, color, etc. He also described the requirements of the lighting level based on the types of residential areas, including the definitions in the code about downcasting light, fully shielded lights, and the maximum allowable brightness of lights measured in lumens. The overview provided context for commissioners to understand what already exists in the code regarding outdoor lighting standards.

String lights, a popular decorative lighting source for homes and businesses, were a topic of discussion. The planners are considering whether placing a curfew on string lights would help decrease the light in town throughout the night.

Another topic of discussion was how to better retrofit the city's current lighting for its streets and businesses, versus trying to replace all lighting to conform with stricter outdoor lighting standards. Some ideas discussed included shielding the streetlights and downcasting flag display light fixtures. When new developments in Sisters go up, part of the land-use application has to do with dark sky lighting code, and developers can start with fixtures and types of light that conform with the code.

However, the older developments and some areas in city limits were not necessarily built with dark skies in mind. Hence the discussion and workshop on better retrofitting the current lighting fixtures.

Discussion as to whether there would be any funding available for people to retrofit their businesses or homes was also brought to the table. It is up to the Council to decide the amount of funding they could put forth.

The Planning Commission agreed there needs to be additions to the code. They recognize how difficult it is to enforce the lighting ordinance. The City has a code enforcement officer, but he can't go out in the middle of the night and check all the areas that could be violating the code.

Woodford wants to increase education to the citizens. Without a definitive way to enforce the lighting code, the Commission and Staff hope that education and discussion amongst neighbors and continued work sessions at City Hall will help increase dark-sky awareness.

They plan to focus more enforcement on the areas with more light pollution, such as streetlights and parking lots.

Citizens that spoke during the public commentary section of the meeting echoed the sentiment that the city's lighting should follow code, and residents and businesses should be empowered to retrofit their lighting.

Commissioner Sarah McDougall suggested putting resources toward educating citizens by providing information on improving their lighting or changing it to something better for dark-sky viewing.

There will be another work session on August 17 to further discuss the remaining issues and the code language, specifically regarding the duration of the compliance timeline. Those proposed timelines were: publicly owned lighting to be brought in conformance within five years and private within 10.

The string light discussion will continue into the next workshop, figuring out how to regulate the use of string lights without eliminating them from businesses entirely, whether that be with a curfew or another sort of mechanism. They will also continue to workshop the language for public lighting, whether it is exempt from the ordinance, and how to best retrofit current lighting fixtures.

Given the difficulty of regulating and enforcing dark- sky lighting, the Commission and Staff want to provide resources and education for the public and housing boards on dark-sky lighting and how to improve it for everyone's benefit.


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