San Antonio’s economic growth has contributed to a bright future – and bright skies. In a letter to City Council that helped preserve dark skies in the SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan, Joint Base San Antonio called for city-wide lighting restrictions that could convince the Department of Defense (DOD) to move national training missions to San Antonio – and with them billions in economic impact.
Light pollution has well-documented effects on ecosystems and human health. Baby sea turtles and migratory birds, for example, can become disoriented and travel the wrong way due to urban lighting, which in turn increases their mortality rates. Light pollution also affects human circadian rhythms, which can cause a host of medical disorders including depression, insomnia, cardiovascular disease, and cancer according to Paolo Sassone-Corsi, chairman of the University of California, Irvine pharmacology department.
Most argue that wasting at least 30% of electricity from lighting by sending it skyward is a bad idea, citing that it increases costs for residents every month, and also contributes to air pollution and climate change.
Advocates of bright lighting argue that it makes communities safer by deterring crime. While there are compelling studies that call that relationship into question, and some findings indicate that bright light may actually reduce visibility by constricting residents’ pupils, advocates of brightly lit streets could retain their level of street light by simply switching fixtures to LEDs and angling them downwards.
In fact, that may be one of the easiest environmental solutions to implement.
The SA Tomorrow Sustainability Plan initially included a mandate to expand a Dark Skies Ordinance to the entire city. When the planning commission reviewed the plan, however, it narrowly voted to remove dark skies and impervious cover from its recommendations. The language was already considerably softened away from a mandate, but the development community that the planning commission worked closely with discouraged any action that might change lighting standards.
Ultimately, City Council disregarded the planning commission’s recommendation and included language to “evaluate and update” lighting standards and impervious cover in the final Comprehensive Plan. That softened language could allow the development community to continue to delay the lighting requirements.
There is an unlikely alliance between often conservative and liberal voices as the military and environmental communities in San Antonio stand united on this issue, albeit for different reasons.
The military needs dark skies, too.
In April, the Pentagon recommended shutting down excess capacity across the country, including 32% of Air Force and 33% of Army bases. Those cuts can deeply impact and hurt local economies surrounding bases. In 1995, a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) authorization closed Kelly Air Force Base – with it went 10,000 jobs.
The coming closures represent an opportunity, though. As of lately, the military has been more selective about where to base its missions. Darker skies would make San Antonio more competitive as the DOD evaluates where to close bases and where to consolidate them.
San Antonio has already seen the benefits of a huge consolidation at Fort Sam Houston. Following the 2005 BRAC recommendations, the United States Department of Defense (DOD) reallocated enough resources to bring in more than 5,000 well-paid employees, 5,500 family members, 9,000 students, and $2.1 billion in construction contracts.
In 2015, Joint Base San Antonio paid its employees $2.8 billion in wages alone, according to the Texas Comptroller. Combined with pensions, long-term contracts, and other expenditures, the economic impact is estimated at $28 billion.
Some might argue that the effect of ambient light on night training is minimal. While only military experts can speak to how much dark skies improve military training, San Antonio stands to benefit greatly from being better than other cities it is competing with for base assignments.
With impressive healthcare and cybersecurity sectors as well as low cost of living, San Antonio is already a logical pick for the Pentagon’s resources. With dark skies, it would be hard to turn down San Antonio as a base for any Air Force mission.
Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10), who retired from the Air Force as a Colonel, voiced strong support for the initiative.
“I’ve lived through many BRACs, and I know that the military looks at completing their missions,” he said. “If there are any posts that aren’t supporting a particular mission, the post is in jeopardy and could be shut down. I’m concerned for San Antonio, and want to do everything we can to support those installations.”
Gallagher is particularly qualified to make claims about competition between bases and their needs. He worked directly under the Joint Chiefs of Staff as director of public affairs at the Air Combat Command, and has served on bases as far away as Alaska and Europe. Council members cited Gallagher’s military experience as a big reason for unanimously appointing him to District 10’s vacant Council position in 2014.
Currently, the only dark skies program the City is enforcing is the five mile area surrounding Camp Bullis. Other bases like Lackland Air Force Base, which does a huge amount of the nation’s pilot training, are not included in dark skies ordinances.
According to Maj. Gen. Juan Ayala of the last Citizen’s Environmental Advisory Committee, expanding the five mile limit to include all military bases within the city would already cover nearly 75% of the entire municipality. He recommended citywide dark skies simply to encourage uniformity in lighting enforcement so that inspectors don’t have to switch standards based on a military base map.
In a letter to City Council, members of the Joint Base San Antonio Encroachment Team explained that military flight training with Blackhawk helicopters and night vision goggles takes place in areas of the city outside the current dark skies ordinance areas and that “a dark sky ordinance in those additional areas would be a benefit to that training.
“The quality of night training is affected by both direct light and by overall ambient lighting,” the letter continued. “While there may not be appreciable direct light coming from (five) miles away, overall ambient light levels would be reduced if a citywide dark sky ordinance would be passed.”
The military has a strong incentive to encourage energy conservation within the city to ensure ozone compliance as well. In its letter to council, the Joint Base San Antonio argued that “having energy efficient fixtures would help the San Antonio metropolitan area with the upcoming October 2017 designation of non-attainment for ozone.” For military base assignments, that can make a big difference because of the cost of compliance studies.
“It will make it more difficult for future growth because all federal entities will be required to do conformity analyses for all growth action and make findings that the proposed growth does not affect conformity with ozone attainment,” the letter further stated. Since conformity analyses increase the military’s cost of simply considering placing missions within a city, San Antonio could find itself out of the running for competitive missions if the City fails to adopt energy conservation measures.
If a citywide ordinance were implemented in the same way as the Camp Bullis’ five mile radius requirement, developers would have ample time to prepare since the regulation only affects new installations. All lighting has to be replaced after approximately eight years, so the city would reach full compliance in about a decade.
Gallagher, who is generally sensitive to increasing costs for developers and voiced strong opposition to last month’s coal tar ban, for instance, dismissed claims that the lighting regulations would substantially increase building cost.
“I’m sure that there will be objections,” he said, “but this is not something that will be very costly as long as the developer knows well in advance.”
Home improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s already offer downward-facing LED options that only cost slightly more than the lights that are currently in place.
Besides the sustainability, health, and economic growth opportunities, darker skies also can bring San Antonio’s residents closer to the cosmos. Dimming lights means seeing more stars and changing the experience of the city into something more natural and calming. For those with economic growth priorities, costs to developers surely rank below the impact of energy savings and the potential expansion of lucrative military bases.
“The five mile radius is a good start,” Gallagher said, “but if we could expand that to the whole city, think about what a powerful statement that (makes) to the Department of Defense about how much we support the missions.”
Top image: A Navy Sea Hawk helicopter lands outside Baiji, Iraq during an operation against Al-Qaeda. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Miguel Angel Contreras for the U.S. Navy.