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Coastal commission approves 'ugly' light poles at NOAA building

- P.G. officials plan to fight the lights

By KELLY NIX

Published: July 29, 2011

PACIFIC GROVE city officials plan to protest last week’s decision by the California Coastal Commission to allow a half-dozen light poles to remain in the parking lot of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s research facility, lamps that were installed last year without permission from the coastal commission or notice to the city. The agencies were not even told the lights were being installed.

In a three-page letter to a director with NOAA, coastal commission federal consistency manager Mark Delaplaine determined that because NOAA installed the towering lights in its parking lot for the “safety and security” of its staff, they could stay, despite being put in without permission from the coastal commission, which strictly regulates development in the coastal zone. The NOAA fisheries laboratory, 1352 Lighthouse Ave., is a block away from the ocean.

The approval of the lamps has riled Pacific Grove city officials, who plan to protest the decision at the Aug. 12 coastal commission meeting in Watsonville. City environmental programs manager Sarah Hardgrave said the city was “gravely disappointed” in the decision.

“Our community feels NOAA’s installation of these lights with no consultation with the city or the commission prior to the installation has disregarded the need to work in cooperation with the local jurisdiction,” Hardgrave said in an email to a coastal commission analyst Wednesday.

NOAA has cited danger to its staff from intruders — including mountain lions and even terrorists — as justification for the lights in the parking lot of the facility. NOAA also cited an incident when an employee broke her toe after tripping in the parking lot.

The lights drawing protest include six 24-foot-tall fiberglass poles with attached LED lights, solar panels and battery units, which some residents say look out of place in the scenic neighborhood.

But according to NOAA, the new low-wattage lights are an improvement over the old halogen system because they are “dark sky certified,” turn off three hours after sunset and turn on one hour before sunrise, and don’t have as much effect on the night sky, points reiterated by the coastal commission.

“The LED lights will reduce the footprint and intensity of night-time lighting when compared to the previous non-directional searchlights that illuminated the [NOAA] parking lots,” Delaplaine wrote, “and the commission believes this element of the project yields a reduction in adverse lighting effects on adjacent neighborhoods and environmentally sensitive habitat.”

Double standard

While essentially giving the feds a free pass for the light poles, which cost taxpayers $36,000, Delaplaine said it’s highly unlikely a homeowner would be allowed to do the same thing, saying the lights could conflict with environmentally sensitive habitat and visual resource policies of the Coastal Act and land use plan.

“And if this was a new project sited on non-federal land, the conflict could be significant and adverse,” Delaplaine wrote.

Coastal commission analyst Mike Watson said there are different laws governing what the feds can do and what residents can do on their private property. But, he said, it’s improbable a resident could install just one of the lights NOAA has installed.

“With regard to what the commission may or may not do,” Watson said, “I don’t know for sure, but I believe that it is very unlikely that it would approve these types of light poles in the residentially zoned Asilomar Dunes planning area.”

But because the lights are intended to serve as “modernization and security improvements” to the NOAA facility — which, Delaplaine notes predates the stringent 1976 Coastal Act — the light poles “in this context” will “not adversely affect coastal resources,” he found.
But Pacific Grove city officials have long believed otherwise. In March 2010, officials requested NOAA adhere to the city’s strict architectural guidelines.

The decision to allow the lights also doesn’t sit well with P.G. resident Roger Pasquier, who cited the apparent double standard set by the famously strict coastal commission, which routinely tells coastal homeowners what color they can paint their houses and even what they can plant in their yards. For example, the coastal commission waged an 10-year battle in court to compel a homeowner on 17 Mile Drive to remove a mini-golf course from his front yard and replace it with native plants. Pasquier said the lights are an eyesore and he plans to join city officials in addressing coastal commissioners at the Watsonville meeting.

“They could have put those light poles up against the building, not right in the middle of the parking lot,” Pasquier said.

And while the commission says the solar LED lights will “reduce the footprint and intensity of night-time lighting” compared to the old lighting, which had been installed on the building, Pasquier said it’s not night light pollution he’s concerned with.

“We have to look at the lights during the day,” Pasquier said. “They’re so ugly ... it looks like they have created a landing spot for flying saucers.”

Besides speaking to several coastal commission staff members, Pasquier also tried to contact U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, since he introduced legislation that resulted in a federal transfer of 66 acres of land to Pacific Grove — including the Point Pinos Lighthouse property adjacent to the NOAA facility, which lies on four acres owned by the federal government.

“He is the guy who put this transfer of U.S. Coast Guard property back to the city and made a big deal how the land is supposed to be protected and rehabilitated back to its original state,” Pasquier said.

Pasquier said he’s contacted Farr numerous times but said he never heard back from the congressman or his staff.

Differing opinions

Delaplaine’s decision seems to be at odds with an earlier opinion from Watson, who in an April 30, 2010, email to a P.G. resident said he recommended the commission find the lights to be “inconsistent” with the resource protection provisions of the city’s land use plan and the Coastal Act. He said he believed there were less intrusive alternatives with fewer impacts on the environment.

Though he approved the lamps, Delaplaine also said the Asilomar Dunes area is an area the coastal commission has “consistently interpreted the Coastal Act and the Pacific Grove Land Use Plan” to provide maximum protection of environmentally sensitive habitat and scenic public views “including but not limited to strict limitations on structural height, fencing and night-time lighting.”

The Aug. 12 coastal commission meeting in Watsonville begins at 9 a.m. The agenda and staff reports can be found at www.coastal.ca.gov.