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Shining a Light on Outdoor Lighting Ordinances

In 2019, the city of Cottonwood Heights went through the process of drafting and adopting a new outdoor lighting ordinance. Any planner who has ever reviewed a photometric plan knows how technical and complex lighting regulations can sometimes be, so it was important for the City to get things right with this new ordinance. Staff knew the ordinance would need to adapt best practices to meet local needs, while at the same time being practical and enforceable. Education and engagement with the public and local decision makers was also a priority throughout the process of adopting the ordinance.  


While the state of Utah is a world leader in dark sky parks, many municipalities on the Wasatch Front only have lighting regulations aimed at preventing light trespass onto adjacent properties. Staff researched best practices from the International Dark-Sky Association, American Planning Association, and other professional organizations to draft a comprehensive lighting ordinance. Many of the recommended best practices were simplified and tailored to meet the specific goals of the City. For example, instead of creating multiple lighting zones with separate standards, regulations were adopted just for commercial and residential zones. This way the ordinance could incorporate regulations on things like fixture types, height, site illumination, light color, and automatic timing without being too difficult for staff to review and enforce.  


Throughout the process, staff made it a priority to educate the public and work with decision makers to make sure the ordinance was supported by everyone involved. Education efforts included a newsletter article sent to all residents explaining technical concepts, slideshows at public hearings with lots of pictures to explain lighting terminology, and a page on the City website dedicated specifically to the outdoor lighting ordinance. Staff even prepared a full lighting demonstration for the Planning Commission and City Council with dozens of lights at varying levels of brightness and color. This presentation was so popular with local leaders that it has since become the benchmark against which all presentations are compared (in a recent Planning Commission meeting one commissioner commented that the presentation was “almost as good as the lighting presentation”). 


Every community stands to benefit from reduced light pollution, whatever their size, demographics, and priorities may be. The work behind this dark sky outdoor lighting ordinance is highly transferrable to other interested jurisdictions, especially those neighboring Cottonwood Heights along the Wasatch Front. Please feel free to reach out to the Cottonwood Heights Planning Department if you are interested in adopting a similar ordinance in your municipality.  


Andy Hulka, Senior Planner, Cottonwood Heights

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