Monday, April 13, 2015

Clear Channel Wants More Light Pollution

[Tomorrow an ordinance will be introduced at El Paso City Council to grant an exception to the Dark Sky Ordinance of 2005 when it comes to signs. El Paso's billboard and digital sign advertiser, Clear Channel, is behind the request for a grant. A 2002 ordinance banned such billboard and digital lighting and the 2005 Dark Sky Ordinance gave all businesses 10 years to comply. Item 10.1 on the City Council agenda reads: "An Ordinance amending Title 18, Chapter 18.18 (Outdoor Lighting Code) Of the City Code by amending Chapter 18.19.310 (Nonconformance) to add an exception for upward directed sign lighting for off premise signs and by amending Chapter 18.18.120 (Externally Illuminated Sign Standards) to provide for an exception for upward directed sign lighting. The penalty being as provided in Section 18.02.111 (Violations And Penalties) of the El Paso City Code. [POSTPONED FROM 03-31-2015]"

Clearly Clear Channel wants light pollution, favors energy waste and does not want to protect El Paso's wildlife.

Marci Turner of the Mesa Hills Neighborhood Association has written the following open letter to City Council members:]

It’s sometimes difficult to remember what El Paso looked like a decade or more ago.  Back then we were trying to figure out the definition of an arroyo, and whether or not El Paso had any.  The concept of “open space” didn’t exist as yet in our community.  As early as 2002, in his apt description of our city's billboard pollution problem, Charlie Edgren of the El Paso Times asked whether El Pasoans even still cared about their city. El Pasoans did care in 2005 when the Dark Sky Ordinance was passed (Outdoor Lighting Code), and we did care in 2008-9 when digital billboards first appeared in our city and residents throughout El Paso were outraged at this blatant disregard of our city’s 2002 ordinance banning them:

 “20.18.300 Lighting.  Billboards which contain, include or are illuminated by any flashing, intermittent or moving light, or lights, to include changeable electronic variable message (“CEVM”), or LED technology, are prohibited.”  

When the Dark Sky Ordinance was passed in the spring of 2005, the entire city was given 10 years to come into complete compliance.  May 7th, 2015, is the deadline.  These past 10 years have brought about a real change in the El Paso environment.  We no longer have corner convenience stores engaging in “light wars” – thinking that with brighter light comes more business.  In 2005 we were able to show City Council that this ordinance would not only provide our residents with a healthier, safer, calmer city but would also be economically beneficial to the city.  In 2005, the savings the city would realize in the course of one year was estimated at $2M.

Immediately after the ordinance was passed,  businesses both large and small invested time and money to come into compliance with this ordinance.  The entire landscape of the city has changed with the reduction of light pollution emitted from poorly planned fixtures crowding our sky with distracting and unnecessary light.  Prior to the passage of our Dark Sky Ordinance, a representative from McDonald Observatory in Ft. Davis remarked that the only thing they could see between there and the west coast was the light pollution from El Paso.  This is not true today.   The idea of “Dark Sky” is widespread throughout the world.  Visit online the International Dark Sky Association at    When El Paso City Council passed this ordinance we received national recognition for our determination to join other cities with this progressive legislation.  Looking out over El Paso you can easily see the difference, and you can also see with clarity which lights have not as yet conformed.

When digital billboards first appeared in our city residents city-wide banded together against this illegal act.  By requesting a seemingly innocent “electrical permit” from the city, the billboard company was able to squeeze around the code and convert already existing billboards to digital.  The ensuing fight between the residents and the company was agonizing, and the citizens lost the battle despite the fact that the company’s actions violated city ordinances.  No matter how dedicated citizens’ groups are, it’s difficult to successfully compete against a huge company that has so many more resources at its disposal.   Nevertheless, we did make some progress.  In 2009 our City Council voted for an ordinance that would prohibit the construction of new billboards, as over 1,500 cities in the US have done.  Unfortunately, three days later our mayor vetoed the vote.  

Again, this is not unique to El Paso.  Billboard companies have followed the same pattern throughout the country, and in fact, throughout the world.  "Billboard control improves community character and quality of life -- both of which directly impact local economies. In fact, despite billboard industry claims to the contrary, communities and states that enact tough billboard controls enjoy strong economic growth."

And here we are today, one month from the Dark Sky total compliance deadline of May 7, 2015, and our primary billboard company is requesting City Council to allow upward directed sign lighting. Compliance with the ordinance would mean that billboard lights would be affixed to the top of the billboard and shine down, not to the bottom and shine up towards the sky.

Instead of complying with the ordinance, as they promised to in 2009 when they were requesting more billboards, our primary billboard company is asking permission to change the bulbs on existing upward directed billboards to LED, rather than directing them downward and/or shielding them as is required by the 2005 ordinance.  LED lights produce the same amount of light pollution as the existing lighting, are less expensive to operate, and will save the company a great deal of money over a period of time. 

There is no legitimate reason why this or any other company should receive an exemption from the ordinance.  I’d like you to carefully consider the damage our community would suffer if this exemption is granted.  These lights would not only increase the night sky pollution we have almost succeeded in obliterating,  but such an exemption would also send the message to our community that if a company has enough power it can manipulate our City Council into voting against the will of the people who elected them. 

Clear Channel had 10 years to bring its billboards into compliance.  By allowing “upward directed sign lighting” you will completely defeat the purpose and intent of the Dark Sky ordinance.

In light of the information above, and the clear wishes of the residents of El Paso, I ask that you deny all requests for exemptions from our current Outdoor Lighting Ordinance.

Submitted by Marci Turner, Upper Mesa Hills Neighborhood Association


  1. What was the result?

    1. The ordinance to make the changes Clear Channel wants was only "introduced" at Council this past Wednesday. Action on it will take place this coming Tuesday. Stay tuned.