Citywide lighting ordinance on fast track

Perhaps fed up with several recent disputes over lighting in Malibu, city officials and 30 members of the public expressed overwhelming support for a citywide lighting ordinance last week at a special meeting at Malibu City Hall. The ordinance is expected to provide clear ground rules on outdoor lighting, although at least one commenter warned that it could prove costly for some properties to comply.

A special session of the Zoning Ordinance and Code Enforcement Subcommittee (ZORACES), met Tuesday last week to collect public input on the structure of a potential ordinance, and business was brisk.  “The City Council is in favor of this and is fast-tracking it,” said City Councilmember John Sibert after the meeting. “I’ve never seen anything go from City Council to ZORACES this quickly.”

A request for proposals (RFP) will now be issued for a consultant to write the ordinance, which will then be heard by the Malibu Planning Commission and later the City Council.

The Planning Commission, which has dealt with several community fights concerning lighting issues at Malibu High School in recent months, made a case for a lighting ordinance to the City Council in April. That prompted a unanimous vote by the council on April 9 directing ZORACES to explore an ordinance.

A group of Malibu Park residents called the Malibu Community Alliance (MCA) filed a lawsuit against the school district and the City of Malibu last July over four 70-foot-tall lights at the main high school athletic field, and in April MCA filed an appeal with the California Coastal Commission challenging the Planning Commission’s approval of a plan to renovate Malibu High School which would include extensive night lighting of a new parking lot. Both the lawsuit and the appeal are ongoing.

The commission has argued the city’s current lighting standards are not detailed enough for effective decision-making.

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The commission currently uses the limited lighting standards written into the Local Coastal Program (LCP) and the Malibu Municipal Code.

The most obvious replacement, agreed to by ZORACES last week, is a dark sky ordinance based on a template called the Model Lighting Ordinance, or MLO. 

“The MLO outdoor lighting template is designed to help municipalities develop outdoor lighting standards that reduce glare, light trespass, and skyglow,” states a website for the International Dark Sky Association and the Illuminating Engineering Society, two independent groups which promote dark sky lighting. 

The MLO separates areas of the city into zones depending on the amount of existing development, with corresponding appropriate levels for each. It would apply to all zoning types except for state highways. High-intensity lights such as those used for football fields or parking lots would require a special permit and application process.

The MLO was introduced to the Planning Commission in February by James Benya, a UC-Davis professor whom the Malibu Community Alliance paid to travel to Malibu to make presentations about the ordinance.

The charge of the ZORACES meeting was to choose from three options for structuring the new ordinance: adopt the MLO as written; adopt a simplified version of the MLO standards; or create a new ordinance. The group unanimously favored option one, because it is already written, tested by engineering experts and would be more enforceable and hold up better in court to legal challenges. 

“If we use the MLO as our ordinance, it doesn’t waste a lot of staff time. It’s easier to go forward with a standardized ordinance,” Planning Commission Chair John Mazza said. “Up lighting has already been against the Malibu municipal code for 12-13 years… Option 1 is of huge PR value to Malibu if we’re one of the first to adopt it in the U.S.”

Former Malibu Mayor Jefferson Wagner said he liked the MLO because its standards have been proven and could provide protection in the event of legal challenges, but he also expressed concern over deciding the time period for people to comply with the new lighting regulations.  

“It could cost thousands of dollars for some properties to comply. Don’t let the amortization be the thing that kills this.”

The principal cost to property owners would be updating to more efficient light bulbs. Under the MLO, all properties would be grandfathered in. Wagner, in an interview Tuesday, said manufacturers are already in the process of phasing out inefficient bulbs, so it should not be an issue in coming years. But not rushing property owners into compliance would be paramount to ensuring the ordinance’s success when it reaches the City Council, Wagner said.

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