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Feds: We don't need a permit to ruin the view

By KELLY NIX

Published: February 26, 2010

IF A homeowner within the protected and highly scenic sand dunes of Pacific Grove installed six 25-foot, multi-armed light poles without a permit, he’d be fined and threatened with jail.

Yet a federal agency has installed such light poles over the last two months at its offices adjacent to the Pacific Grove Lighthouse without even consulting the Pacific Grove planning department or the California Coastal Commission, much less asking either agency for a permit or doing any environmental review.

The coastal commission’s staff is starting to ask questions about the conspicuous lights.

“They are development,” Mike Watson, planner with the coastal commission told The Pine Cone of the lights. “And they require some sort of review and permitting.”

The NOAA building lies steps from the Pacific Ocean on land the coastal commission considers Environmentally Sensitive Habitat — a designation that requires homeowners to undergo intense scrutiny before doing even the slightest development on their property.

NOAA spokesman Frank Schwing said his agency did not seek coastal commission permission for the lights because their installation was considered a “maintenance project” and NOAA didn’t believe it needed approval.

“To our best understanding, NOAA deemed this was something that did not require a permit by the coastal commission,” he said.

Watson said his office was investigating the matter. On Tuesday, Schwing said coastal commission had been in contact with the NOAA regional office in Seattle to discuss the lights.

New and better lights

The NOAA facility, which was previously a Naval Reserve Station, already had lights for its parking lot mounted to the side of the building. Schwing said the new ones would make the building more “green” and provide better security for employees.

“This is the latest opportunity to get targeted funding to reduce our carbon footprint, and have more security lighting than we previously had,” he said.

A few months ago somebody cut the fence to the NOAA facility, Schwing said. The new lights, NOAA contends, will not only reduce the danger from human intruders but also the threat of wild animals.

“Predators have moved into our neighborhood,” he explained. “We are hoping this will dissuade mountain lions and coyotes from hanging out. This is a legitimate concern because we have had a number of deer kills on our property mountain lions and coyotes.”

A similar argument from a homeowner would probably be laughed at by coastal commission planners, who also require that property owners not create barriers to wildlife.

The lights — which cost $36,000, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers — will pay for themselves in about 11 years in saved electricity bills, according to Schwing.

Crews have finished installing the lights and are in the process of installing several more ground-level solar lights to illuminate a trail adjacent to the facility, Schwing said.

This is not the first time the NOAA building has attracted attention. In 2008, NOAA paid an artist $120,000 to paint a large flashy sea life mural around the top of the building without seeking a permit from the coastal commission.

Unaware of the lights

Watson said the coastal commission was in the dark about the lights until a neighbor of the NOAA facility contacted him. And, though the federal government owns the NOAA building and the land it sits on, Watson said the lights are still subject to a coastal commission review.

“We would evaluate the proposal for potential impacts on coastal resources,” Watson said of the review process.

To make sure the lights had the least amount of impact to the environment, Schwing said NOAA voluntarily underwent a federal environmental review.

And the lights were designed to minimize the disturbance to neighbors and the surrounding habitat, which includes the endangered Smith’s blue butterfly. “All the light goes downward so there is no skyward light pollution,” he said. “They are what you call dark sky certified.”

Nevertheless, the poles are an obvious intrusion on the city’s shoreline scenery and interfere with night views of the lighthouse.

Pacific Grove regulates everything from outdoor lighting to paint schemes to what a homeowner in the neighborhood around the NOAA building can plant in his yard. Still, a Pacific Grove employee told The Pine Cone the city also wasn’t aware of the light poles.

“If the federal government owns the land, we don’t have purview to regulate the lights,” said city planner Sarah Hardgrave.