Where civilizations gather, a balance is sought when it comes to the need for artificial light, between public safety versus light pollution. Light pollution — or the excessive utilization of artificial light — can negatively impact anything from humans’ circadian rhythms to wildlife activity and habitats to energy use. This month, we asked local agencies and jurisdictions what the rules are for lighting up the Tahoe Basin.

Meanwhile, just beyond Moonshine’s coverage area, the City of South Lake Tahoe is attempting to become a dark sky city as recognized by the International Dark-Sky Association, which requires cities and towns to adopt high-quality outdoor lighting ordinances and educate their citizens about the importance of dark skies. At the end of July, two streetlights in the city along U.S. Highway 50 were converted to dark sky-compliant light bulbs of different wattages, and at the beginning of August, the city asked people to vote on which wattages they preferred. On Sept. 6, the South Lake Tahoe city council will hear an update from staff on dark sky findings and research.

~ AH

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Is light pollution growing in the Tahoe Basin? How is the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency involved in minimizing the impacts of light pollution around the Basin?

Light pollution is probably not growing very much in the Tahoe Basin, and, for a number of reasons, could start to decline.

The Lake Tahoe Regional Plan sets standards for building design as well as key limits on new development that work together to protect Tahoe’s dark sky views just as it does water quality.

Primarily, growth limits in Tahoe, such as prohibitions on new subdivisions and roadways and limits on building height, ensure that new light sources will be kept to a minimum.

Adding to that, any new project, redevelopment, or major renovation in the Basin is reviewed either by TRPA or our local government partners to ensure exterior lighting is adequate to provide for public safety, yet minimized and compatible with neighborhood light levels. We check that exterior lighting uses cutoff shields to minimize light pollution and stray light, and work with applicants to emphasize using a few, well placed, low-intensity lights.

TRPA also encourages upgrades to outdated buildings and reinvestment in town centers so that, over time, existing homes, businesses, and roadways will be updated to current standards, which delivers environmental benefits and could reduce overall light pollution into the future.

~ Jeff Cowen, public information officer with TRPA

Are there any Placer and Washoe county ordinances regarding the effects of light pollution in the Tahoe Basin? How do the counties enforce these ordinances?

Placer County does regulate lighting — to minimize both impacts on neighborhoods and light pollution that diminishes our shared enjoyment of the night sky. Described broadly in our general plan, our policy is to “discourage the use of outdoor lighting that shines unnecessarily onto adjacent properties or into the night sky.” How we implement that policy in North Lake Tahoe is codified in our Tahoe Basin Area Plan (Chapter 3.09.D.), which provides specific regulations governing allowable types of lighting. We make sure new projects adhere to these regulations as part of our project review process. And violations of our lighting regulations in general are addressed, like all other code violations, by our code compliance officers. We investigate all complaints. Anyone can lodge a complaint and we will look into it to see if there is a violation. If there is a violation, then we will work to resolve it.

~ Crystal Jacobsen, Placer County community development resource agency deputy director for North Lake Tahoe

The term ‘light pollution’ has many meanings and interpretations, can be subjective, and is hard to define and regulate through an ordinance governing large geographic areas. Most jurisdictions with dark sky standards achieve their goals by implementing regulations requiring certain types of light bulbs and fixtures (it is now possible to purchase dark sky-certified lighting), by reducing the amount of lighting required (for example the number and spacing of streetlights), and by regulating height and placement. The regulation of light and glare is a balance between what is necessary to ensure public safety and minimizing the amount of light produced by development of all kinds. Most municipal codes require a minimum amount of lighting, typically expressed in “foot candles,” in areas like parking lots and pedestrian walkways. Washoe County is no exception.   

Washoe County has many dark sky policies within the various area plans. Those policies are implemented through ordinances contained in the Washoe County Development Code. WCC 110.220 contains ordinance provisions specific to the Tahoe Basin. Section 110.220.40 Community Design and Land Use Compatibility sets forth certain lighting standards. For example, Section 110.220.40 (i)(6) states:

Exterior lighting should be minimized to protect dark sky views, yet adequate to provide for public safety. Cutoff shields that extend below the lighting element should be used to minimize light pollution and stray light. Overall lighting levels should be compatible with the Regulatory Zone light level. Emphasis should be placed on a few, well-placed, low-intensity lights. Lights should not blink, flash, or change intensity except for temporary public safety signs.

There are additional standards for specific sub-areas within the Tahoe plan area, such as State Route 28 and parking lots in commercial nodes. The TRPA code of ordinances has further standards for light, glare, and scenic resources. In addition to these regulations, Washoe County has base light and glare standards that apply throughout the entire county. The primary standards require all lighting to be down shielded, light cannot spill over property lines, and lights cannot be higher than 12 feet if adjacent to residential uses.

Light regulations are enforced by Washoe County Code Enforcement (upon receipt of a complaint), and by ensuring development standards are met through review/approval of development. Washoe County Code Enforcement utilizes the Administrative Enforcement code and process to achieve compliance when a violation occurs. This process includes various mechanisms to compel compliance, but warning and penalty notices (fines) are the typical method. To ensure due process is provided, penalties can be appealed to the Administrative Hearing office for resolution, and that outcome can be appealed to the Board of Adjustment and ultimately to judicial review for final disposition. But usually, the penalty notice process is sufficient to gain compliance.

~ Chad Giesinger, AICP, planning manager with Washoe County

Author

  • Alex Hoeft

    Alex Hoeft joined Moonshine staff in May 2019, happy to return to the world of journalism after a few years in community outreach. She has both her bachelor's and Master's in journalism, from Brigham Young University and University of Nevada, Reno, respectively. When she's not journalism-ing, you'll usually find her reading a murder mystery, pounding the pavement on a run, or eternally throwing the ball for her dog.

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