Officials work to reduce light pollution |

Officials work to reduce light pollution

SUMMIT COUNTY – Jim Doyle can sit in his living room at night and read by the lights from the Dillon Ridge movie theater sign. And that’s five years after he built a tall dirt berm to try to block the sign’s illumination.

“Progress is one thing, but lighting destroys the reason that we are here,” said Doyle, who has lived on Dillon’s Buffalo Street since 1968. “It would really be nice to stick your head out and look at the stars at night. I can’t do that anymore.”

Doyle’s attempt to build the berm to a height that would block the light came to a screeching halt when Dillon town officials told him he should have obtained a permit first. He stopped bringing in dirt and instead planted about 250 trees on top of the berm.

“In my grandchildren’s lifetime, hopefully they won’t be able to see that sign,” he said.

Doyle isn’t the only Summit County resident concerned about light pollution. In fact, the issue is setting off alarms worldwide. According to NASA, a 2000 study shows that two-thirds of the world’s population no longer can look upward at night and see the Milky Way.

Silverthorne resident Tom Jones Jr., who has lived in Summit County since he was 8, said he became aware of that fact when he was a college student in Minneapolis.

“The professor asked how many students had observed the Milky Way,” he said. “I was shocked at how few people raised their hands.

“I grew up with it every night. It’s just one of the special things about living in a place like this. You get to wake up and see snowy mountains, and when you go to bed at night, you see millions of stars that a lot of other people don’t know exist.”

But Silverthorne Councilmember Peggy Long said she recently saw firsthand the impact of the county’s light on the night skies.

“On New Year’s Eve, it was snowy, the conditions were just right and we could see the light glow from Summit County clear out to Green Mountain Reservoir,” she said. Green Mountain Reservoir is about 15 miles north of Silverthorne.

County and town representatives say they’re working to cut down on the amount of light pollution that escapes from local developments. All the towns now require or are revising codes to require downcast lighting, which directs illumination down, and cutoff fixtures that prevent passers-by from seeing the light bulbs within the fixtures.

Dillon Town Manager Jack Benson said the brightness of the theater sign didn’t escape the town’s notice.

“Dillon Ridge has been very good about working with the town in reducing the light intensity,” he said. “They took some bulbs out. In retrospect, (the town and developer) might have handled the sign a little differently, but I think the parking lot lights, gas station lights, all of that has adhered to our code requiring the full cutoff fixtures, so I’m pretty happy with that.

“There’s so much good technology out for lighting, there’s no reason to be using fixtures that throw out so much stray ambient light.”

Dillon is considering revisions to better define light levels through candle-power measurement, “as opposed to the vague wording in the ordinance we have now.”

Breckenridge Mayor Sam Mamula said his council is very sensitive to the issue.

“I think that’s one of the reasons you won’t see night skiing in Breckenridge,” he said.

Keystone spokesman Mike Lee said he hadn’t heard any complaints about the night skiing lights. In fact, the lights serve as a silent advertisement for Keystone.

“You come around the corner from Dillon and you see the mountain lit up,” he said. “I’ve never heard people upset that they’re on. They’ve been there so long that they predate a lot of the homeowners in the area.”

Last year in Silverthorne, the town hall fielded several complaints about a clock tower light at the Quality Inn. The town council ordered the Quality Inn to snuff out the light, and to cut down the height of the hotel’s parking lot lights to conform to town code.

Silverthorne isn’t finished with the issue.

“Knowing that lighting is a huge concern, planning commission and council have asked us to take a look at our lighting code and do some research,” said community development director Mark Leidal. “There are other communities who have been very successful in turning down the lights to make sure they’re not obtrusive. We’re in the process of trying to rewrite the code for the sort of mountain environment we’re trying to achieve.”

But keeping current with the issue isn’t easy. The standards for lighting change, some say, with the speed of light.

“There’s even a difference between the way we set up the County Commons (which opened in 1997) and the new senior center (which opened in 2002),” said County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom.

Jones, who now lives in Willowbrook, said the dimming of the night skies is an insidious process.

“It’s like watching a puppy grow,” he said. “It’s so gradual, I don’t really notice all the changes that have occurred. I think as citizens we have to decide if we want amenities that are particular to a mountain community or amenities that are particular to an urban setting.”


Jane Reuter can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 229, or by e-mail at

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