Maricopa keeps lights low, night sky visible

By Josh Skalniak

July 26, 2012 - 3:41 pm
Walter Nunez likes to run at night but makes sure to stick to main roads with some lighting. Robyn Skalniak photo

Like many suburbs, Maricopa lies outside a big city from noise and smog polluting the atmosphere. Nestled along its private drive, State Route 347, Maricopa is close enough to Phoenix to enjoy the spoils of big city life, but its location keeps residents feeling closer to the countryside than cityscape.

In most cities when the sun goes down, lights turn on, illuminating neighborhoods, streets and even the night sky. Maricopa has its share of lights but, compared to many other cities, it remains in the dark.

From astronomers observing the stars above to residents enjoying outdoor movies at Pacana Park, Maricopans find ways to enjoy the visible night sky, which is preserved by local light ordinances intended to reduce the effects of an ever-growing population.

However, some residents take a dim view of lower light levels. They see the relative darkness as a nuisance and even a danger.

The Beautiful Night Sky

Before Maricopa was incorporated in 2003, the planning was overseen by Pinal County. Among the county’s values concerning Maricopa development was preserving the community’s dark skies for stargazing.

Coyote Trail Bed and Breakfast, 23 miles south of Maricopa, is one business that uses the night sky to attract guests. Atop the facility is a balcony where guests are invited to use a telescope to enhance their night-viewing experience. However, owner Mary Jane Lopez said most of the guests do not use the telescope because they don’t need it.

“It just looks like you’re touching the sky when you are up on our deck,” Lopez said. “It is quite beautiful at night here.”

A recent guest extended his stay from one day to four because he was so impressed with the view of the night sky.

“He said ‘it was a piece of heaven,’” Lopez said.

Not only are visitors choosing to come to Maricopa for the night sky, but residents are drawn to the city for the same reason.

Local Realtor Sandra Mitsis of Acacia Fine Homes said many of her clients love that Maricopa hardly has any city lights.

“They love the darkness,” she said.

Mitsis, who has been selling properties in Maricopa for four years, said the darkness is one of her selling points. She tells clients Maricopa has all the conveniences of a big city, but it doesn’t have the negatives of a big city like too much lighting.

With important observatories — strategically placed by elevation and alignment — located just south of Pinal County, even the slightest amount of artificial light can disrupt astronomy research.

“Light pollution is a serious problem for them,” Pinal County Public spokeswoman Heather Murphy said of the scientists.

Scientists studying the night skies are joined by residents taking advantage of the lack of light to observe their favorite celestial objects. Maricopa resident and Central Arizona College physics professor Clark Vangilder said he likes stargazing with his daughters.

“When the weather is cool, my daughters and I enjoy using a small telescope to look at the moon and some of the planets,” Vangilder said. “The fact that it is still so dark in most parts of town is a bonus in that regard.”

From aesthetics to conservation, Vangilder said local government should do what it can to preserve Maricopa’s night sky.

“Government should propose to enhance these things while balancing other public interests such as safety,” he said.

Night Safety

The city adopted the preexisting light guidelines set by the county with a few minor adjustments. Although Maricopa continues to develop with dark skies in mind, a focus of city planners is the safety of its residents.

“We are trying to provide design standards for crime prevention,” said Maricopa city planner Rodolfo Lopez.

Even though Maricopa’s light ordinances keep the city dark in many areas, which could increase criminal activity, Police Chief Steven Stahl said he favors the light ordinances and understands why they are there.

“I enjoy the darkness,” Stahl said.

The focus of the police department, he said, is to train officers, volunteers and HOAs on crime prevention through environmental design. He said a criminal element looks for areas of opportunity to commit crime.

“It’s not about crime, it’s about opportunity,” Stahl said.

Stahl used the phrase “harden your facility” when talking about what people can do to protect themselves from criminal activity. He said residents need to make their property less desirable for criminals.

When residents plan to install lighting around their home, the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design training book said to always light entryways and operate lights on a timer inside the home when away.

Although bright lights can deter criminal behavior, the training book states that “residential lighting should never trespass into neighboring properties,” because the glares from bright lights can reduce a neighbor’s ability to see intruders on your property.

Dan Dawn, co-owner of Maricopa-based Arroyo Vista Landscape & Design, Inc., said a complete frontyard lighting package that won’t glare into neighbors’ yards can cost $1,000 to $1,500 depending on the size of the yard. A standard package usually includes eight lights with 20-watt bulbs, a transformer and all necessary wiring.

According to Electrical District No. 3, it costs about $5 a month to keep all eight 20-watt bulbs Dawn recommends using to light the yard during the summer months.

As for the darkness in neighborhoods, Stahl said the criminal will say he has the advantage, but the truth is the police concentrate more on dark areas rather than lighted areas.

“What the darkness does: It hinders the regular citizen from getting an accurate description of a suspect,” Stahl said.

Maricopa resident and business owner Will Dunn said he isn’t quite sure how he feels when it comes to the lighting of his neighborhood. The challenge, he said, is balancing security and serenity.

“I go back and forth, where wouldn’t it be better if my lights were a little brighter in certain spots, but do I want to mess it up for the guy next door who is sitting on his back porch?”

While Dunn said there is a fine line between safety and preserving the night sky, he said his friends who live in Phoenix sure do enjoy the night sky when they visit.

“They look up and go ‘Wow, we don’t get this in Phoenix,’” Dunn said.

Moving in the Dark

The Arizona Department of Transportation’s 2010 Crash Facts — a compilation of statistics involving accidents on Arizona roads — shows accidents occurring at night in areas with no light were twice as likely to result in fatalities as crashes in daylight.

Maricopa Police Sgt. Tim Truett, who heads the department’s traffic unit, said the two main reasons more fatalities occur at night in dark areas are driver fatigue and DUIs. Although driver fatigue is harder to prove than DUIs in fatal accidents, both, he said, are preventable and should be treated equally when it comes to the law.

He said in some cases drivers slightly under the influence may not realize they are unable to drive properly, but drivers with fatigue always know when they are too tired to operate a vehicle.

“For safety at night, don’t drive when you’re tired. Just pull over somewhere and take a nap,” Truett said.

Because of Arizona’s hot summer days, many residents choose to run or bike at night when it is cooler. However, in low lighted areas, the night hours can be extremely dangerous for joggers and cyclists.

“Don’t ride bikes at night,” Truett advised.

He addsed that if a person must ride a bike at night, he or she should always have lights on the bike and wear reflective or bright clothing.

Walter Nunez has lived in Maricopa five years, and he said he prefers to run at night.

“I try to stick to the main roads that are lit and take routes that limit me in having to cross the street,” the Senita resident said.

Nunez used to live in Scottsdale and misses the green belt used by joggers and cyclists. The 12-mile stretch of sidewalk extends across most of Scottsdale and is well lighted.

“This town really needs something like that,” Nunez said.

To avoid collisions with vehicles, Truett said to walk or jog on the side of the road facing oncoming traffic.

“If somebody strays off the road while you’re on the edge of the road, then you can see it coming,” he said.

However, unlike walkers or joggers, cyclists must always ride their bikes with traffic. Truett said it might be smart for a person to add a rear view mirror to the handle bars to keep an eye on the traffic to the rear.

Maricopa resident Carla Abriam walks her dogs at night to avoid the heat, and said she has to be careful because cars are constantly “zipping” by her when she is crossing streets in her neighborhood.

“I am not sure if it is the bad driving or the low lighting,” the Acacia Crossings resident said.

Like Abriam, many residents who choose to walk their dogs at night can take comfort knowing there are products on the market, such as LED leashes and LED dog collars, designed specifically for night safety.

Most of Maricopa’s population recently relocated from other parts of the country, and adjusting to Maricopa’s low-light ordinances can be a struggle.

“I come from the East Coast where there are street lights on every corner,” Pam Eby said. “Then I come out here, and it’s pitch black.”

Eby said the worst part about driving at night in Maricopa is when she is coming into town on State Route 347. The “pitch black” drive is interrupted by random patio lights shining in her eyes from houses situated on both sides of the road.

“When the light shines in my eyes, I can’t see anything,” the four-year Sorrento resident said.

Another issue many drivers deal with at night in rural areas like Maricopa is the contrast of oncoming headlights against the dark night sky. Truett said drivers should not focus on the oncoming traffic because it will cause a temporary blinding effect. Instead, drivers should keep their focus on the white line on the right side of the road; briefly glancing at oncoming traffic to make sure other vehicles are not crossing the middle of the road.

Patti Coutre said she experienced a culture shock when she and her kids moved to Arizona from the Midwest. The family was accustomed to the sun going down as late as 9 p.m., but when they moved to Arizona where the nights are longer, Coutre said they had to acclimate to not being able to hang out as much outside.

“It took a while to get used to that darkness,” Coutre said.

She admited she worries about her kids’ safety at night in Maricopa, but said it’s not criminal activity she is afraid of but street traffic.

“As a parent I get a little nervous,” Coutre said. “I mean, I don’t like to go walking in the dark, and I don’t like my kids out when it gets dark.”

Movies in the Park

When the sun goes down, every other Saturday night at the beginning of the summer hundreds of residents flock to Pacana Park where the city offers free movies. In the desert city where the nights are extremely dark, Maricopa residents do not shy away from their natural settings but find ways to embrace the darkness around them.

Some HOAs are offering activities at night for their residents as well. For homeowners in The Villages at Rancho El Dorado, the HOA will be playing as many as six movies in the development’s park throughout the summer.

The city’s summer series ended June 23 with the showing of Hugo.

Coutre takes her children to the movies in the park where she is one of many who show up representing various nonprofits selling concessions to the movie-goers starting at 7 p.m. She is the parish secretary at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church.

“It’s been a really nice experience to go out there,” Coutre said. “It’s something for families to do, and to just sit back, relax and enjoy the weather.”

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