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As Growth Looms South Of Moab, San Juan County Poised To Protect Dark Skies

Photo of six people seated at a conference table, as an audience seated in chairs looks on.
Kate Groetzinger
The San Juan County Planning Commission met Thursday in Monticello to pass zoning for Spanish Valley, an unincorporated area in the northern part of the county.

MONTICELLO — Just south of Moab, across the boundary splitting Grand and San Juan counties, the night sky in Spanish Valley is dark enough for residents to make out full constellations. 

Buffered by a curtain of protections passed by Grand County to limit light pollution, Spanish Valley, home to about 500 people, has no such shields from San Juan County. 

But that could change next week, as the county’s planning commission passed proposed building ordinances that include lighting rules Thursday. 

With the recent completion of a water and sewer project the population of Spanish Valley is expected to skyrocket in the next decade. The county hired consulting firm Landmark Design to create zoning ordinances to control that growth, and the consultants surveyed Spanish Valley residents earlier this year. 

“The public comment was overwhelmingly — something like 92% — in favor of a tough, effective dark skies ordinance,” said Mark Shapiro, a resident who participated in the process. 

Landmark Design’s drafts included a lighting ordinance for new and existing construction, which the planning commission amended to apply only to new construction. Commission chairman Trent Shafer said the commission omitted a rule that would have required existing structures to comply with new lighting rules because they worried the county would not be able to enforce it. 

Concerns about the county’s ability to enforce those zoning ordinances came up repeatedly during the three-hour meeting. That’s due, in part, to the new zoning map the commission passed. It includes six new zones — double the number that exist in the rest of the county. County Human Resources Director Walter Bird said the dark skies ordinance is also likely to slow down the permitting process. 

“They made some changes tonight to help us enforce it, but it’s still going to be a challenge," he said.

A map showing new zoning in Spanish Valley. There are six differently colored zones.
Credit Landmark Design
The zoning map passed by the San Juan County Planning Commission on Thursday includes six different zoning types. The rest of the county has only three types of zoning.

Other minor changes to the proposed ordinances include removing a restriction on the number of truck stops allowed in Spanish Valley. Love’s Travel Stops already has plans to build one truck stop along Highway 191. 

Some residents were unhappy with the ordinances and map passed by the commission last night, which they say infringe on private property rights. Randy Day, a real estate agent in Moab, said he bought property in Spanish Valley in anticipation of the water and sewer service coming online. 

“I did buy property in San Juan County a few years ago, banking on the fact that I can step across that line and I can enjoy my private property rights,” he said. 

The new ordinances and map will go to the San Juan County Commission for approval next week. A moratorium on commercial construction along Highway 191 in Spanish Valley in place since May will expire at the end of November. 

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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