Amador County supervisors reject broadly supported ordinance to protect dark night skies, save energy

On Tuesday, August 11, the Amador County Board of Supervisors rejected a proposed outdoor lighting ordinance developed by the county as a result of the general plan litigation settlement between the county and Foothill Conservancy. Supervisors Frank Axe and Richard Forster voted in favor of the ordinance, but supervisors Pat Crew, Jeff Brown, and Brian Oneto voted to kill it.

We described the history and purpose of the ordinance in our last newsletter (link to story). The Amador County Planning Commission approved it on a 4-1 vote in March.

Before casting his vote, Supervisor Forster noted that the ordinance was a compromise to protect private property owners while also achieving specified goals. If passed, the ordinance would have required new or replacement outdoor light fixtures in the unincorporated area to meet specific color temperature and shielding standards (basically, be a warmer color and point down, not up or out). The ordinance would have saved homeowners and businesses money on their future energy bills, focused lighting where it’s needed for safety and security (not up into the sky), improved conditions for wildlife, avoided the sky glare that obscures views of the dark night sky, attracted tourists, and prohibited anyone’s exterior lights from shining onto adjacent properties.

The ordinance was supported by Tri-County Wildlife Care, the Amador County Astronomical Society, members of the International Dark-Sky Association, the Amador Council of Tourism, and many local residents. Its main detractors were self-described anti-regulation advocates, but they were significantly outnumbered by its proponents.

After hearing Chairman Pat Crew of Jackson cast the deciding no vote at the public hearing, some Amador County residents, business owners, and then-Foothill Conservancy President Katherine Evatt, asked Crew why he voted against it. His answer? He was concerned that a future board of supervisors might impose a compliance deadline for replacing old light fixtures (no such deadline was in the ordinance), and that would then pose an expense for businesses. The explanation fell flat with most. Any vote of a current board of supervisors can be changed by a future board. It was also clear that those who originally wanted a compliance deadline in the ordinance — including us — had dropped that position (all light fixtures would eventually have to be replaced).

“We were shocked and dismayed by Chairman Crew’s vote,” said Evatt after the meeting. “We negotiated a settlement agreement with the county in good faith, and while the legal language of the agreement could not commit the board to voting for the ordinance, we had a clear understanding that they intended to comply with the spirit of our agreement and enact an ordinance. Supervisors Crew and Oneto both voted for the (voluntary) settlement agreement, and we are truly disappointed that they now feel no obligation to abide by its intent. Their actions certainly call into question whether any group should trust the board of supervisors in the future.”

Still, the work on the ordinance wasn’t entirely in vain. We hope that one or more of our local cities will enact similar ordinances (Jackson already has lighting regulations), and that the county will enact a lighting ordinance sometime in the future. Our dark skies are an invaluable local resource no longer present in urban areas and light pollution hurts our local quality of life. We are very sad to see three members of our county board supervisors fail to recognize their importance and vote for this broadly supported measure.

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Leslie Smith, Sutter Creek, CA: Raised in Washington State, Leslie is a happy California transplant having moved to Sunny Sutter Creek full time in 2020. As a nascent fly fisher and lifelong skier, she is committed to the natural environment and brings extensive organizational and finance experience to the board from a nearly 40 year career in banking.