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Santa Fe to discuss dark skies in the light

Streetlights such as this one on Agua Fria have been installed around town for a test run to show what impact new LED lights might, or might not, have on Santa Fe’s ‘dark skies.’ (Mark Oswald/For Journal North)

The Journal North has long been a supporter of measures to promote “dark skies” by muting and shielding lights to help provide better views of northern New Mexico’s spectacular night skies.

As soon as plans to switch out all of the city’s existing street lights with new, much more energy-efficient LED lights appeared on a City Council committee agenda, we called on city leaders to follow the lead of other cities and make sure that the LEDs installed here are the right kind that don’t spread glaring blue light and instead focus the light downward with “warmer” tones that reduce light pollution.

While LEDs are expected to save 60% on energy costs, making them a necessary change, they can actually increase glare if not carefully planned for.

After local dark skies advocates raised concerns, the City Council and mayor commendably set up a committee to review the street light plans, including the color temperatures of the LEDs, measured in kelvins (K). The city has proposed 3000K on residential streets and 4000K on thoroughfares. Dark skies critics argue that even 3000K may be too much, anywhere.

But these arguments reportedly may be getting a bit out of hand.

What with the country facing difficult debates over racial justice, policing, immigration policy and gun violence, one might expect a debate over street lights to be relatively tame. But city leaders last week said that activists have been pushing their cause “on a pretty large scale and aggressive tone.”

City Councilor Chris Rivera told the New Mexican councilors have been “inundated with emails about the lighting project, and some of them can be really nasty.”

It will be interesting to see just how nasty emails on this issue can be, should they emerge into the public sphere. Are there trolls threatening to storm City Hall carrying pepper spray and flags that say “Dark skies or death” if streetlights on their block have more than 2000K?

Concerns over this kind of thing were one reason City Hall made the bad and undemocratic decision to try to keep the names of the 12 people on the streetlight review committee confidential. That veil of secrecy was being lifted last week after the powers that be were persuaded that keeping the lighting committee in the dark, so to speak, was not the way to go, nastiness or not.

With that issue out of the way, serious discussion can continue. A good start has been the installation by contractor Dalkia of sample LED street lights around town. They went up late last week and will remain up through May 10. The test lights are easy to distinguish. The LEDs fit flat or flush into a shallow light fixture.

You can see them:

• At Frenchy’s Field Park, with test lights along Agua Fria east and west of Osage.

• On Jaguar Drive between Paseo del Sol and Avenida Contenta.

• On St. Michael’s Drive west of Fifth Street, with three test lights on both sides of St. Mike’s.

• On Governor Miles Road, west of Camino Carlos Rey, with six lights on the south side of the road.

It would be nice if there also were a few test lights installed on residential streets in different neighborhoods to provide an indication of which kelvin rating or light design provides the sweet spot between dark-sky friendly and providing enough light for security purposes.

The promotional materials for the project also mention shields that can be used to direct light away from unwanted areas and back toward the road. We hope that, in the end, Santa Fe, like other cities around the country, has a process that allows residents to request shielding on lights that, for instance, shine into home windows or deteriorate backyard night views.

Santa Fe already has some LED lights that also may be worth checking out.

Existing 4000K LED streetlights can be seen on Herrera and Paseo del Sol Drive near Nina Otero Community School, in the new subdivisions on Beckner Road and Rail Runner Road, Plaza Central off Jaguar in the SWAN Park area and the decorative green light poles on Guadalupe Street downtown.

So, with nightlife still restricted due to the pandemic, a few short drives after dark to check out what LED streetlights might do to our sky views could be a worthy pastime.

And let City Hall know what you think, without the nastiness. Dalkia is taking comments at santafe.dalkiasolutions.com/.

This is a once-in-a-generation project for Santa Fe – the city will spend $2.75 million to change out 5,500 city-owned streetlights. Another $421,185 city contract will convert 2,060 streetlights owned by PNM.

We need to get this light right.





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