NAU chooses compliance with the city’s Dark Sky initiative

Illustration by Blake Fernandez

For over a century, residents of Flagstaff have marveled at the starry nights that rest above the pines. For some, such as Percival Lowell, hidden among the dark skies is discovery. For others, the dark skies are a staple of the community.

The skies of Flagstaff have been the subject of international attention since Lowell first discovered Pluto in 1905. Flagstaff was recognized as the first International Dark Sky City in 2001. Presently, Flagstaff’s skies are still a valued commodity as the city and NAU continue to expand preservation efforts.

Flagstaff first began its ongoing battle with light pollution in 1973, when outdoor lighting standards were passed. In subsequent years, revisions to these standards were made frequently, as new technology and research were added to the equation.

The most recent revision to lighting standards was in 2016 and includes up-to-date outdoor lighting codes that buildings and facilities must adhere to. According to the city’s outdoor lighting standards, the purpose of these codes is to assure that the dark skies remain a resource for residents to enjoy.

“Dark starry nights, like natural landscapes, forests, clean water, wildlife and clear, unpolluted air, are valued in many ways by the residents of this community, and they provide the natural resource upon which our world-renowned astronomical industry depends,” as stated in the outdoor lighting standards.

These standards account for many different concerns. Nighttime safety, energy efficiency and animal behavior are among the concerns addressed. The outdoor lighting standards note that modern lighting adequately provides light for safety and utility without excessive glare or light pollution. The city has taken it upon itself to preserve the dark skies without sacrificing the comfort of residents.

The city’s code compliance officer, Mark Stento, is employed to enforce building compliance with lighting code. Several times each week, Stento and other preservation officers conduct evening patrols to check for compliance. Stento said the enforcement process involves a detailed investigation. This process includes reviewing lighting standards when structural plans are approved, compiling data related to current fixtures and light sources, and an analysis of exterior modifications to the property.

“It’s an honor to serve the community and the city of Flagstaff as a code compliance officer, and I do enjoy my job,” Stento said. “I believe in the value of our dark skies and efforts toward sustainability as a whole.”

Stento said these efforts are now more important than ever before, as pollution continues to increase due to bright LEDs falling in cost. LED lights are the top offender, specifically because they commonly replace outdated and less efficient lighting.

The city combats these new concerns by increasing awareness. Stento said a new community outreach and incentive program for residential awareness and violation resolution is in the works.

NAU Facility Services has taken measures of its own to ensure the preservation of Flagstaff’s dark skies. As a state institution, NAU is exempt from abiding by the city’s lighting codes but chooses to comply.

The university’s Planning, Design and Construction (PDC) branch of Facility Services recently made efforts toward compliance. Project manager Andrew Iacona said a team of project managers and members of the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition meet once a month to ensure new buildings and facilities meet the standards that are expected of a dark sky city.

“Our goal is to go above and beyond,” Iacona said. “We have always gone above and beyond.”

While the university lacks official enforcement, university lighting is regulated by way of PDC. New projects funded by the university are planned to comply with lighting standards set by the NAU’s design guidelines. Older buildings and facilities are slowly being brought up to code as renovations occur and the updated design guidelines are utilized.

Not only are dated buildings in violation of lighting, but the biggest offenders are campus streetlights and other types of outdoor lighting. Iacona said the university makes efforts to update these amenities as often as possible.

“The university has had a mentality of compliance for at least 10 years,” Iacona said. “We are constantly searching for ways to apply new conditions to existing spaces.”

Lighting standards are easily followed and create few issues for new projects being funded by the university. However, Iacona said PDC still goes to great lengths to ensure compliance. It is not uncommon for custom lighting products to be designed specifically for the university. Lighting shields, LED lights and outdoor lighting fixtures are a few of the products that have been tailored to the request of PDC. The recently constructed sports activity practice fields is one of many projects that boasts custom-made products.

Departments like those of Stento and Iacona may have starkly different methods of dealing with light pollution, but Flagstaff citizens have come together to protect the community’s renowned starry nights. It may lack the ability to enact policy, but the community-led Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition certainly influences residents to be mindful of their outdoor lighting. Those who are interested in learning more about light pollution and how to prevent it can do so at the organization’s website.