Green Valley News      

Friday, August 20, 2004



Council will take up request for Wal-Mart outdoor lighting


By Philip Franchine



GREEN VALLEY--The Sahuarita Town Council on Monday will discuss whether to allow the planned Wal-Mart SuperCenter to use twice as much outdoor lighting as allowed by town code.


The meeting will take place at 7 p.m. Monday at Anamax Park Recreation Center, 17501 S. Camino de las Quintas.


The agenda also includes a routine report on the activities of the Building Safety Department.


Diamond Ventures and Wal-Mart have asked the town to allow them to use 110,000 lumens per acre, more than twice the town limit of 48,000 lumens per acre. A lumen is a measure of light emitted from a fixture.


The developers say they cannot guarantee public safety with lower lighting levels and that the level should approach that of the existing center. They have obtained letters from major tenants, including Walgreens, Bank of America, Wells Fargo Bank and Fletcher's Tire and Auto, saying they need the requested light levels.


Need questioned


 The Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory and others, including the chairman of an outdoor lighting task force, say the request is based on advertising, that there is no research supporting the developers' safety claim, and that the requested lighting levels would impair astronomical research at Whipple.


Some neighbors have filed written objections, saying they want to retain the area's dark skies.


The town raised its outdoor lighting limit to 48,000 lumens per acre from 25,000 in May, following a similar increase some time earlier by Pima County.


The county and local jurisdictions, including Marana and the city of Tucson, have participated in an outdoor lighting task force in an effort to develop a consistent outdoor lighting approach, including limits that are lower near observatories. The Sahuarita limit matches the county limit within 25 miles of Whipple.


Diamond and Wal-Mart tried to amend the ordinance so that expansions of existing shopping centers could match the existing lighting levels, but lost by a 4-2 vote with one council member absent.


The west end of the existing Bashas'/Wal-Mart center is lit at 274,000 lumens per acre and the east portion, the Wal-Mart, is at 118,000.


Request failed


Diamond and Wal-Mart in early August applied for a modification from the town Planning and Zoning Commission, but after three hours of discussion, the request failed on a 3-3 vote, with one commissioner abstaining.


The developers appealed the Plan Commission outcome to the Town Council.


Town Planning Director John Neunuebel supplied the council with a memo saying that town code says that in order to approve the request, "the Council must make a finding that the modification is necessary for the proposed use of the subject property, because of increased security requirements, public safety, or public need, and that the purpose and intent of this code are reasonably accommodated."


While Neunuebel carefully avoided taking a position before the Plan Commission meeting, his memo to the Town Council offered a rationale for approving the developers' request. It said that if the council does not allow the request, motorists or pedestrians moving from the west end of the plaza to the east would go from 274,000 lumens per acre to 118,000 to 48,000, and that "would result in a variation in lighting levels that may affect nighttime vision," which would meet the public safety or need provision.


However, going from 118,000 lumens per acre to 48,000 is a 60 percent drop-off, little more than the existing drop-off of 57 percent from 274,000 to 118,000 lumens for those going from the west end to the Wal-Mart area.


The issue of safety has been hotly debated, as developer lobbyist Michael Racy insisted that safety would be threatened at 48,000 lumens and that every other shopping center in the area had a substantially higher lighting level.


The others, including the Bashas'/Wal-Mart Plaza, were built before lighting codes were approved, except the Safeway on Duval Mine Road. Town officials admit Safeway accidentally was approved for a lighting level above that allowed in town code, though town officials and Racy disagree over how much light Safeway uses.


Lighting engineer Hy Kaplan, the head of the task force, which includes officials from Tucson, Pima County, other towns and commercial interests, said that while the task force has not met to discuss the issue, his opinion is that the developers can safely light the parking lot at 48,000 lumens per acre.


Based on advertising


Kaplan said the request was based on advertising, not safety, an assertion that might be supported by the last sentence of the developers' request, which mentions "this site's proximity to the interstate highway," and "the existing commercial development in the area," factors unrelated to safety.


Dan Brocious of Whipple said a comprehensive review of existing studies by the U.S. Justice Department found no support for the more light means more safety approach, noting that many crimes occur in daylight.


Perplexed Planning and Zoning Commissioners asked Police Chief Stuart Heller if there were any studies showing increased lighting levels increased safety.


Heller said he was not aware of any studies, but said he believed more light meant more safety.


Brocious noted that the city of Flagstaff has limited outdoor commercial lighting to 50,000 lumens since 1989 in a large area near three observatories and asserted that that limit had not stopped commercial development. | 625-5511 x 28