Are dark skies in Cave Creek’s future?

By Tracy Demetropolis

CAVE CREEK – In August 2019, the Cave Creek Town Council voted 4 to 3 against a non-binding resolution starting the application process for the town to become an International Dark Sky community.

The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) defines an International Dark Sky community as: a town, city, municipality or other legally organized community that has shown exceptional dedication to the preservation of the night sky through the implementation and enforcement of a quality outdoor lighting ordinance, dark sky education and citizen support of dark skies.

But that council vote hasn’t deterred Cave Creek Dark Sky Initiative (CCDSI) founders Bruce Arlen and Bob Hughes from getting the word out about what they believe are the benefits of becoming a Dark Sky community. The group is meeting February 24 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Desert Foothills Library in Cave Creek. Activities will include a Dark Sky art show, telescope viewing, Dark Sky speakers and music. Plans for 2020 will also be discussed. The public is welcome.

“The main reason an IDA certification is important for Cave Creek is the assurance that we will keep Cave Creek a rural gem – at least through proper lighting management,” Arlen said. “Just updating our lighting codes is not enough. By going through the application process and winning a Dark Sky designation as an International Dark Sky community, we become assured of proper lighting management. Proof is already in the pudding with towns like Flagstaff and Fountain Hills. The benefits of a ‘way of life’ are immense.”

The resolution the town council voted against was a non-binding document that would have established a commitment by the town to focus on the IDA application process, Arlen said. Once the town had met and adopted the IDA lighting ordinance standard, it would be nominated for formal recognition by the IDA for certification, he added.  

“Moving forward with a non-binding resolution is a process of exploration that we hope will be put back onto a council agenda for another vote,” Arlen said. “A yes vote simply begins the application process with the IDA.”

In a January 6 statement, the Town Planning Department said, “Although the Town of Cave Creek values its dark skies and the quality of life it provides for residents, visitors and wildlife, which is reflected in the current town ordinances, town council must consider the additional resources and expenditures required to become a certified IDA community.”

The statement went on to say the Planning Department is currently working on modernizing the lighting code, such as revising how light is measured, changing it from watts to lumens. These
revisions to the lighting ordinance will likely go before the Planning Commission by March and to the Town Council for a vote in May or June.

Arlen said there are some common misconceptions or “myths” about the CCDSI that he would like to address:

Myth: The IDA is just another layer of the government telling citizens what to do.

Arlen: Not true. The IDA is not another layer of government. They are not government at all. They do not enforce lighting ordinance, codes and statutes. In fact, they have no enforcement arm. They are a 501(c)(3) association that promotes and provides best lighting practices to municipalities and individuals. Through its research, scholarship and educational outreach, it promotes remedies to mitigate the growing negative effects of a pervasive light pollution that effectively eliminates the starry skies.

Myth: The town will increase lighting codes enforcement if it becomes a certified IDA community.

Arlen: Not true. The Town of Cave Creek is a complaint-driven town and will be into the foreseeable future. The IDA knows that a) outside enforcement doesn’t really work and b) IDA certification means self-education and self-enforcement. In fact, the IDA knows there can never be 100-percent compliance. Lighting is an ongoing education project. Over time, residents and businesses will begin to understand the benefits of more managed use of lighting. Also, through lighting attrition best practices will naturally begin to emerge. 

Myth: The IDA wants to stop me from using my lights.

Arlen: Not true. We need lights. We use lights. We like lights. It really is about smart lighting and smart usage. When you need lighting, use lighting. When you don’t need lighting, don’t use it. This learned practice allows all of us to view the night skies without lighting glare trespassing from another property. Lights left on all night are not necessary. There are remedies such as light motion detectors, timers and the on/off switch. Unshielded lights that are left on all night are light pollution.

Myth: I thought Cave Creek was a Dark Sky community.

Arlen: Not true. Although we have the makings of one, this is a common misperception because Cave Creek has quite good lighting ordinance in place relative to many towns. We are also in an advantageous Dark Sky geographical spot due to our abutment to the Tonto National Forest, located due north and east of us. To become an official Dark Sky community, we will need to go through the IDA application process. This means changing, upgrading, revising and eliminating some of our current lighting ordinance. The good news is we get no-charge help from the IDA that has already established working best practice lighting codes in many municipalities such as Flagstaff and Fountain Hills.

Myth: It will be burdensome and costly if Cave Creek becomes an IDA-certified community.

Arlen: Not true. The costs are minimal. Once Cave Creek becomes an IDA-certified community, the residents and businesses have 10 years to shield unshielded lights trespassing outwards and to change out older bulbs for newer technology or keep their incandescent bulbs. Incandescent-bulb manufacturing has recently been reactivated due to lower costs, disposal issues with some newer bulb technology and because people like them. This is done voluntarily and through normal lighting attrition.

CCDSI has started a Facebook page called Cave Creek Dark Sky Initiative. For more information on the IDA, go to www.darksky.org. For the town’s current lighting ordinance, go to www.cavecreekaz.gov/Document Center/View/995, starting on p. 14 for outdoor lighting. Go to DocumentCenter/View/1032, p. 10 for commercial.