The Norman Transcript

June 22, 2011

Council approves lighting ordinance

By Andrew Knittle
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — The Norman City Council voted 6 to 2 Tuesday night to adopt a contentious outdoor commercial lighting ordinance. Councilmen Al Atkins and Dan Quinn voted against it.

Most of the residents who addressed the council Tuesday night were against the ordinance, which will apply to all new lighting installed in Norman.

The new standards address light poles, light fixtures and wall packs and require developers to submit a photometric lighting plan before a building permit is issued. Retrofitting, a major concern from the business community, isn’t a part of the ordinance.

City officials said the purpose of the ordinance is to address light spillover from commercial onto residential properties and to reduce energy waste.

Resident Larry Steele was for the adoption of the lighting ordinance. He said its detractors, who feared the ordinance could have negative, unforeseen consequences, were “being a little bit paranoid.”

“This ordinance actually improves lighting,” Steele said. “Good lighting is not less lighting.”

Steele said Norman, which considers itself a progressive community, should take a long-term view when it comes to ordinances such as these.

“Every first-class city in the country has a reasonable lighting ordinance,” Steele said. “Although this is not a perfect ordinance, it’s a good start.”

Maj. Jim Maisano of the Norman Police Department said there “will be no impact in police services provided” in the city.

In fact, he said the ordinance should actually improve visibility at night and help officers’ vision as it transitions from lighted to darker areas.

Assistant City Attorney Blaine Nice said the ordinance couldn’t be used to “harass” certain businesses, who may be targeted by individuals in the community who are unhappy with lighting on the property.

“We have checks and balances in place,” Nice said. “We try to be consistent. It’s not just one individual making a subjective decision.”

As to why the University of Oklahoma and Norman Public Schools are exempt from the ordinance, Councilwoman Carol Dillingham said they are subject to state law, which supersedes Norman’s own laws.

The councilwoman described OU and NPS as “a higher entity on the chain than the city.”

“A lot of folks don’t understand that,” Dillingham said. “We can’t control them.”

Dillingham added that street lamps owned by OG&E, which are exempt from the ordinance, fall in the same category. OG&E is governed by the Corporation Commission, which also places it “above the law” when it comes to Norman’s codes.

Councilman Tom Kovach, Ward 2, said Flagstaff, Ariz., has a similar ordinance in place. He reported that crime hasn’t gotten out of control in that city and that business hasn’t been negatively affected.

“It’s important to look at the facts when you’re talking about an issue like this,” Kovach said. “This is an ordinance to improve quality of life in Norman, not to make it darker ... to make it safer.”

Many residents were upset with city officials because they didn’t have prompt answers to their questions during public comment Tuesday night.

Local businessman Greg Mattoon, like most others who own a business, said he was tired of the council “over-regulating” the very entities that provide Norman with tax dollars. He also was concerned when Susan Connors, the city’s planning director, didn’t know how much the city would have to pay to bring itself into compliance with the ordinance.

“You don’t even know what it’s going to cost the city, but you want poor business (to live with it),” Mattoon said. “You think it’s easy being in business in this city? People are barely hanging on.”

Doug Kennon, owner of Sooner Legends Inn & Suites, said it was “scary” how much time city staff and the council have spent on the lighting ordinance.

“We’ve wasted a whole lot of time, effort and energy,” Kennon said, adding that he feels that the ordinance has “a lot of gray” areas in it. “And there’s a lot of bad in the gray.”

Kennon, who accused the council of “voting in my pocketbook,” is fearful that large outdoor lamps in his parking lot could cost him $170,000 to bring into compliance. He also feels that the ordinance language is so vague that it invites “legal problems.”

“We’re five, six years invested (in the ordinance) and I still don’t know where we stand,” Kennon said. “(And) I think this opens us up to huge legal (issues in the future).”

Chris Lewis, a member of the city’s Planning Commission, implored the council to take more time to consider the ordinance, but his request was denied.

John Woods, president and CEO of the Norman Chamber of Commerce, said he wasn’t in favor of the ordinance, mainly because of vague language.

“We’re not yet at a perfect product,” Woods said.

Atkins was against the ordinance because it will impact residential properties, including condos and townhomes. He also worried that city officials may not have done due diligence.

“I think this ordinance has merit, but I don’t think it should pass,” Atkins said. “I have concerns that property owners have not been properly notified. This is still being called a commercial lighting ordinance ... (but) it is not geared specifically toward business or commercial. This is, in fact, an outdoor lighting ordinance.”

In the end, Mayor Cindy Rosenthal acknowledged that the ordinance, regardless of how contentious and debated, was a long time coming.

“This has been a very long process,” Rosenthal said. “We do not currently have ... any real standards in complete respect for lighting. (The ordinance) is not burdensome to our community and our businesses.”