Reducing light pollution is primary goal
By Don Nelson
Outdoor lighting regulations proposed by the Winthrop Planning Commission would impose rules intended to reduce “light pollution” within the town, but likely not as much as “dark sky” proponents would have liked.
The Winthrop Town Council got its first look at the proposals during its meeting last week. Town Planner Rocklynn Culp said the Planning Commission is looking for council feedback and direction.
The Methow Dark Sky Coalition, a local nonprofit organization, has for the past few years been working on proposals that, fully realized, would create a huge “dark sky community” devoted to reducing light pollution and making stargazing even more brilliant throughout the Methow Valley.
The coalition has conducted research on how dark skies communities have been established in other parts of the country. The group began making presentations to the Planning Commission and Town Council in 2019, with the hope that Winthrop would move toward adopting some of the ideas.
The coalition’s presentation included a detailed draft ordinance. While applauding the coalition’s work, the Planning Commission at the time recommended an “incremental approach” and cautioned that “the proposed ordinance language is far-reaching, and greatly restricts lighting in ways that could be costly and may not initially have widespread support.”
Indeed, the proposals the Town Council reviewed last week were described as “dark sky lite” by council member Ben Nelson.
Culp said the Planning Commission concluded that the original Dark Sky Coalition proposal was “overkill for our town … they wanted to do something more incremental.” Culp said the commission was concerned that the town’s residents and business people would balk at adopting all of the coalition’s recommendations immediately.
“I’m comfortable with this direction,” Nelson said. “Most people support dark skies. It’s the first step to get to that goal.”
The Planning Commission proposal says the purpose of lighting regulations is to control glare and “light trespass,” and thus improve night sky viewing; promote energy-efficient lighting; and protect animals that are adversely affected or harmed by bright lights. The proposals would apply to all public and private outdoor lighting, but not to interior lighting.
Other exemptions would include existing streetlights until they are replaced; emergency lighting; outdoor lighting for temporary events; lighting for public recreation or athletic facilities such as the Winthrop Rink during operating hours; and lighting that illuminates the American flag.
The proposal also specifies which types of lighting fixtures would be acceptable, and which would not.
There will be opportunities for public comments, and a Planning Commission public hearing, before the outdoor lighting proposals would come back to the council for approval, Culp said.
The council also reviewed a proposed set of park and trail regulations for public areas within the town, submitted by the Planning Commission. The proposal include regulations for park and trail hours; noise restrictions; alcoholic beverage restrictions; requirements for having animals in parks or on trails; gathering sizes; outdoor fires and camping; commercial activities; and prohibitions against vandalism, littering and damaging foliage. The council can make exceptions to the policies for special events or other reasons.
The proposal also restricts the use of motorized vehicles in parks or on trails, but does include a provision allowed electric bicycles on designated multi-purpose trails, with speed limits.
Council member William Kilby suggested that the electric bicycle usage be limited to Class 1 bikes, and exclude Class 2 and Class 3 bikes, which can travel faster. “Class 2 is more like a motorcycle, and Class 3 is effectively a motorcycle,” Kilby said. He said he was also concerned about allowing electric scooters. Kilby said he’s had to avoid scooters on trails in other areas. “I don’t think they’re a good idea on pedestrian trails,” he said. “They do create a lot of havoc in some municipalities.”
Council member Ben Nelson said he agreed with Kilby as to electric bike restrictions, but added that scooters could be limited to safe speeds. Nelson said he has used electric scooters in Spokane.
“I dodged them in Spokane,” Kilby said.
Culp said she will rework the section on electric bikes and scooters for further council consideration. She said the proposed regulations do not require and public hearing and can be adopted by the council for inclusion in the municipal code.
In other business, the council adopted an ordinance prohibiting helicopters from taking off or landing within the town limits, except for emergencies or special events approved by the council.
The ordinance is a pared-back version of an earlier proposal that would have limited all aircraft operations withing the town except for medical emergencies, disasters, or special events. The proposal was subsequently revised to allow radio-controlled drones and hot air balloons. The ordinance adopted last week only references helicopters.
The original proposed ordinance resulted from the council’s reaction to the Jan. 9 crash of a small helicopter next to the Winthrop River Lodge and Cabins. Neither of the two people in the helicopter was injured in the crash.
The council also formally launched the multi-step process for annexing property to the town by agreeing to accept a request for annexation from three property owners who own adjacent lots that are contiguous with the town’s boundaries. The lots are near the town tennis courts, behind the Winthrop library, and are accessed via Johnson Lane. All are zoned single-family residential.