March 4, 2005
Ignoring letters from three observatories, the House of Representatives voted Thursday to pave the way for billboards that create messages in lights.
The legislation, crafted by a Chandler company that manufactures the displays, clears up the legal cloud that exists over whether these kind of signs are legal.
David Jones, an attorney for Young Electric Sign Co., said the software that his client has developed ensures the displays will not be objectionable. He said the images on the displays will fade in and out and not change any more often than every six seconds.
But Rep. Ted Downing, DTucson, said none of that addresses the real problem: Signs with these displays means more light pollution. And that, he said, endangers astronomical research in the state.
"Those telescopes won’t work unless they have skies that they can see," he said. Downing said legislators were letting the demands of the billboard industry drive out the astronomers and the money they and their research bring into the state.
Downing could not get legislators to agree to a proposal that would ban these billboards within 80 miles of any observatory.
But Rep. Gary Pierce, RMesa, said such restrictions are unnecessary. He pointed out that HB2461 still would allow cities and counties to enact stricter regulations — or even ban these illuminated signs outright.
Downing acknowledged some communities have socalled "dark sky" ordinances. But he said it makes no sense to force astronomers to petition every city and town council and every board of supervisors to impose new regulations.
Jeffrey Pier, director of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Flagstaff, in a letter to lawmakers said local regulations are insufficient. He said the lights from Phoenix already are "a growing menace to astronomy here" more than 120 miles away.
"The influence of lighting practices and choices in the metropolitan Phoenix area, as well as throughout the state, have very wide-ranging effects," Pier wrote. "It simply cannot be treated as a local problem."
Richard Green, director of the Kitt Peak National Observatory, complained that the legislation has no maximum level of illumination and no requirement to shield the glow.
Thursday’s vote came after the Arizona Department of Transportation decided to adopt a neutral position. ADOT spokesman Doug Nintzel said his agency always believed these signs were illegal. But a state hearing officer concluded that the statutes are not that clear.
None of this affects signs on the property of the business being advertised. Those already are allowed under federal and state law to have flashing lights.
Downing warned colleagues they don’t understand the implications of their vote. "If we don’t pay attention to our astronomy industry we’re going to lose it to other states like Hawaii,’’ he said.