New development illuminates Kalispell’s lighting ordinance

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Lights shine over Kalispell Ford on Jan. 3, at Rose Crossing and U.S. 93. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Development in North Kalispell has brought with it a familiar conflict — complaints about light pollution, the brightening of the night sky caused by the illumination that accompanies commercial buildings.

The latest contentious development is the Kalispell Ford dealership located on U.S. 93 at Rose Crossing. More than a decade ago, the fight was over Home Depot, which was built before Kalispell had a “dark sky” zoning ordinance to control outdoor lighting.

Some community members feel Kalispell’s current lighting ordinance still isn’t strong enough to really keep the sky dark, and the first high-profile occupant of the North Kalispell Town Center is their case in point. While concerns have been raised that the dealership’s lighting is excessive, the business is not in violation of any city statutes. In addition, the Daily Inter Lake did a simple photography test and found that the brightness at the Kalispell Ford location was not appreciably different than at a comparable car lot nearby.

Regulations on the book dictate what types of lights can be used and require lights to be pointed away from adjacent properties and toward the property that is installing them. The regulations also say lights must be placed so that “no light emitting surface is visible from any residential area or public/private roadway, walkway, trail or other public way when viewed at ground level.”

JUSTIN RODY, a manager at Kalispell Ford, said the main reason for the dealership’s lighting is security. They have millions of dollars of inventory and often have customers’ cars overnight for repairs, and the lights discourage any criminal activity that might be easier to get away with in the dark. He said the lights used to be on at full force from dusk until dawn, but they had heard the complaints and at the beginning of December had technology installed that allowed the dealership to adjust the lighting. Now, they turn 60 percent of the lights off from about 8 p.m. until between 6 or 7 a.m.

Rody doesn’t anticipate making any other changes, but said they wanted to be a good neighbor. He said he thought they were catching a lot of attention because they were the first occupant of the new development, a sentiment some community members and planning officials shared.

“I feel that we’ve kind of found the happy medium,” Rody said.

Mark Paulson, president of the Big Sky Astronomy Club, a longtime advocate for dark-skies legislation, says the new dealership shows Kalispell’s current ordinance is not stringent enough. What the regulations lack, he says, are any firm numerical thresholds that say how bright is too bright and how many lights are too many in a given area. “I drove by the Ford dealership before it was open, before they even had asphalt on the ground, but the lighting fixtures went up and I said ‘oh my god,” Paulson said. “I went up to count fixtures and I lost track at 70.”

He said his organization helped the city draft the initial lighting ordinance years ago, using a template that was provided by the International Dark-Sky Association. Paulson said the association still provides such a template, but it has also grown more detailed over the years as developers have racked up victories and pushed the limits of older, looser regulations.

Paulson said a shift to LED lighting has also made the problem worse, because the lights get more noticeable and brighter. He said compounding the problem at Kalispell Ford is that all the poles are white, which stand out against a dark sky.

“The light standards the fixtures are on are white. All you’re doing is creating a lot more reflection and everything. And yet, if you talk to the planning department in Kalispell, it just generally meets the lighting ordinance,” Paulson said. “There is nothing they could do to rein that in.”

Richard Turbiak, executive director of the Citizens for a Better Flathead, shared Paulson’s feelings that municipal regulations needed to catch up to current realities. “Preserving our dark skies is a planning issue that is critical to the quality of life residents and visitors to the Flathead Valley cherish,” Turbiak said in an email. “Important progress has been made in the last decade through the dedicated efforts of a small group of local residents and planning staffs. But as growth continues in the valley it’s time to revisit what more can be done to put in best practices for development along our highway corridors and in our towns and neighborhoods.”

An official with the Kalispell Planning Department said the city’s Architectural Review Committee examines the use of outdoor lights, but with the regulations on the book they can police some factors and not others. City Planner P.J. Sorenson said they pay attention to the color of the poles rather than the number of them, and are also concerned with making sure light structures conform to the aesthetics of the attached building, focusing on fit more than regulating brightness levels so long as the lights are pointed in the right direction.

The department does take photometric measurements to see how much light is spilling over the property line, Sorenson said. The regulations don’t prohibit light from leaving the site, but do establish when it is too much, and the Ford dealership didn’t trip any of those alarms. He also acknowledged that planning staff had received complaints about the dealership and had been out several times to take additional measurements. He said they had never found anything out of compliance with city regulations.

“Our office has been up there a number of times,” Sorenson said. “I don’t think there is a clear violation.”

He said he suspected the new building appeared especially bright because it was perched on a hill and wasn’t surrounded by other commercial buildings, but was instead surrounded by dark, less-developed lots.

A photographer for the Daily Inter Lake took a photograph of the Ford site and compared it to a photograph of the nearby Eisinger dealership with the camera on the same light balance settings. Though the Eisinger dealership appears visibly less bright to the naked eye, lights from other businesses surround it. The photos revealed the light emitted from the Ford dealership when viewed from the street wasn’t significantly brighter than the Eisinger lot.

THE REGULATIONS in Kalispell are similar to those in Whitefish, said Whitefish Planning Director Dave Taylor. He said the fact that the Ford dealership was atop a hill presented a unique situation.

Whitefish has similar standards that dictate a light must be pointed downward so you can only see it if you are right under it, but if the building is on a hill above a highway and the lights are the closest thing to the property line, the same issue could potentially happen in Whitefish with lights on a hill being visible to people driving by.

Taylor said in Whitefish, new developments require an illumination plan, and when older businesses submit plans for a remodel or site changes, they are also required to upgrade or change their lighting to conform to lighting regulations that have been adopted since they were built. A similar practice in Kalispell has been underway for years.

Kalispell City Council member Chad Graham said he thought one of the biggest changes since the city adopted the dark-sky ordinance years ago was the increased prevalence of LEDs. Now lights are brighter and cheaper to run, and that has changed the way regulations need to be structured.

He said no serious conversation about lighting standards has happened at council meetings recently, but he wouldn’t be surprised if that changed soon.

“We’ve heard about it, but I don’t think it’s been anything that’s been put in front of us as a discussion item,” he said. “I imagine it probably will come up at some point.” The land the dealership sits on is owned by developer Roger Claridge and his son Jeff of the Stillwater Corp., and more development on adjacent lots is expected to happen in the coming years.

Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or pfrissell@dailyinterlake.com.

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