Assembly members seek less street lighting in semirural parts of city

Nathaniel Herz

A street light fight is brewing in Anchorage.

The Assembly, led by Jennifer Johnston, is considering a measure that would relax the requirements for lighting certain types of roads in semirural areas, over objections from the city's public works staff.

Residents of those areas and their representatives on the Assembly say that they need the measure to preserve their dark skies, and to keep the city from forcing lights on them when roads are improved or built.

The city's public works department, meanwhile, argues that Johnston's measure would limit their power to require adequate lighting near schools and intersections, and could force them into more expensive road designs.

It acknowledges, however, that some changes are merited, given that the city's current lighting standards don't differentiate between rural and urban areas.

"We're in agreement: there needs to be a standard," said Ron Thompson, the city's public works director, in an interview. "The disagreement is that it's very serious to get it right, and it takes time to get that right."

Assembly members heard appeals at a work session on Friday from Thompson's staff, who lobbied for changes to Johnston's proposed measure. The Assembly will consider the proposal at its meeting Tuesday.

The fight over lighting arose during the city's rewriting of Title 21, the laws governing land use in Anchorage.

Last spring, when the Assembly passed revisions to Title 21, Johnston got members to approve -- over Mayor Dan Sullivan's veto -- a similar measure allowing the lower lighting levels on a specific type of streets, known as neighborhood collectors.

Johnston said she had done so because the city was pushing for unnecessarily high lighting as part of a reconstruction of Goldenview Drive on the Anchorage Hillside, as well as at a subdivision in Potter Valley.

But even after the measure passed, relaxing the rules for neighborhood collectors, the public works department said that the old rules still applied for Goldenview Drive, since it's a larger type of road.

"They found some, sort of, loopholes," Johnston said -- which the new measure is designed to close, she added.

At the work session, public works staff said they didn't object to all of Johnson's changes, but wanted to amend her proposal to allow them to have tougher lighting requirements at certain kinds of driveways, to ensure safety -- including any that lead to six or more homes, or to schools.

"We need to be able to light entrances to schools," said Jerry Hansen, a deputy director in the public works department.

But Assembly members asserted that the department already had that ability.

"The inference that schools aren't included or institutions aren't included is kind of a misleading statement, because they would be included in the enclosed site plan and review document," said Bill Starr.

Thompson, the public works director, said he recognized the need for changes to the city's lighting standards.

But he argued that Johnston's proposed ordinance was too aggressive an approach, and could cause his department problems. New road projects might have to be re-engineered to accommodate the lower lighting levels, he said, like by removing curves, which could drive up costs.

"It locks us into where we don't have any flexibility," he said. "I think jumping and throwing something out on the floor of the Assembly, written and evaluated and handled by people who don't do this every day -- you can lead yourself into a problem area. I'm just saying: slow down."

Thompson said he would prefer to convene a group or panel to settle on criteria for rural lighting.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.