Oro Valley planners are hoping to shed some light on what at times has been a very touchy subject around town.

The subject is light in a town where residents for the most part want to preserve their dark skies and still feel safe when they're walking the streets or coming out of a store at night.

Town planners are in the process of overhauling the town's lighting code to strike a balance between those desires. Their proposals will have an impact on all outdoor lighting uses from eating areas to parking lots, recreational facilities to retail buildings.

In the past, said Oro Valley Senior Planner Bayer Vella, much of the town's light regulation has been a matter subject to interpretation as to whether there was enough light or too much in certain commercial zones or at individual business sites. National standards served as a guide, but were not part of the town's lighting code, he said. As a result, the town has been hampered in its efforts to establish consistent levels, he said.

The proposed code seeks to establish a uniform standard and sets a range of intensity limits based on specific commercial uses, he said.

The present code fails to address the amount of light that ought to be allowed at a particular commercial site, Vella said. It's focused more on the shielding of light. and light spillage, or the amount of light directed into the sky.

Oro Valley, he said, is looking more toward replicating limits Pima County is establishing on the intensity of lighting. The focus, he said, is not on the kinds of light bulbs being installed, but rather on the capacity of the light fixtures.

The town's current code doesn't address quantity of light, whereas the proposed code will address that and how light is distributed across the site, Vella said.

A major challenge to the town's existing lighting code arose earlier this year when officials filed a complaint against Holiday Inn Express, 10150 N. Oracle Road, claiming the hotel installed lighting fixtures that violated the code and were not in accord with what Holiday Inn indicated it would be installing when the town approved its building plans.

According to the complaint, filed in Oro Valley Municipal Court, Khangura Development submitted a lighting plan that was approved by Oro Valley, then "unilaterally changed the design and installed new lighting prior to receiving any approval from the town."

The town contended that much more lighting was installed than necessary and noted that under the proposed code changes, Holiday Inn's current lighting would be three times the allowed limit.

"The entire town is a 'restricted area' for astronomical observations requiring complete compliance with code provisions and because of that status can and should compel minimums" based on nationally recognized standards set by the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, the town argued.

Light pollution to already existing neighborhoods, interference with astronomical observations by the use of bright white lighting vs. subdued filtration or other types of 'softer' lighting, downward directed cones of light vs. more scattered lighting, and the 'bounce' skyward off of light colored walls must all be considered by Oro Valley's building officials in deciding whether a commercial use is in compliance, the town argued.

Khangura Development contended that, because in the opinion of the company's expert lighting engineers their new lighting plan conformed to the town's code, it was entitled to install its revised lighting system. The issue is expected to be resolved shortly after Labor Day.

The proposed code would be based on land uses, Vella said, with greater light intensity limits allowed for larger commercial users, then diminishing limits for neighborhood commercial, apartments and campus park businesses, further reduced limits for churches and schools, and the strictest limits for riparian areas, open spaces and state parks. The idea, Vella said, is to balance the safety of the community and the impact of lighting on residential areas.

Planners sent out forms to 350 commercial property owners and consultants seeking a response to the code proposals by Sept. 7. As of Aug. 31 it had received just two. The measure will come before the Planning and Zoning Commission Sept. 25 and the Town Council in November.

From a law enforcement perspective, "our whole goal is safety, following the guidelines of a Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design Program," said Sgt. Chuck Trujillo of the Oro Valley Police Department.

"Our issue primarily is not whether a site is too light or too dark, but that it's safe," he said. "We want people to be in a position to be able to make a reasonable decision as to whether it's safe to go out to their car after shopping or work or to go back inside and ask for help."

Police favor the idea of requiring businesses to meet at least 80 percent of the light intensity limits set by the new code because it will reduce the number of dark areas at business sites, he said. Trujillo referred to the new code as "a work in progress," noting that as technology advances lighting requirements may lead to the use of motion sensors as an example reducing the need for as much lighting.

"Another nice thing is that 10 years from now commercial sites coming on line will all have come under the same code so Oro Valley will continue to have the same kind of safe community it has today," he said.

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