City Says Aspen Christmas Lights Killing the Earth

Holiday lights in Aspen and Pitkin County should have been off by March 30.

But not everyone is following the rules — and there are plenty of loopholes — according to city and county officials.

Carrington Brown, Pitkin County code enforcement officer, receives regular calls about Christmas lights still burning bright in places like Red Mountain. And recently, Brown ran an ad in local newspapers asking people to turn off holiday lights.

But the county lighting code is not simple, Brown said.

Holiday lights on county residences can be left on from Nov. 15 to Jan. 30, and on commercial properties from Nov. 15 to March 30.

The county ordinance, however, has a loophole: Residents can hang holiday lights in celebration of any religious, national or local holiday for two weeks prior to the event and for two days after, Brown said.

That means anything from Arbor Day to Yom Kippur can be cause to burn up some wattage.

“It may be legal, but is it the right thing to do?” Brown asked of residents who use the loophole to keep lights on for longer periods.

The county code is up for future review, he said.

In the city of Aspen, the rule is that both residential and commercial properties can keep holiday lights on from Nov. 15 to March 1.

“It’s excessive right now,” said Mayor Mick Ireland, who is frustrated that despite global energy concerns residents are “burning Christmas lights in March.”

Ireland hears regular complaints, he said, adding that the city council could look into the matter in coming sessions.

“It’s just not special if it’s 365 days per year,” Ireland said of downtown lights.

City-owned holiday lights (mostly strung on trees in the downtown core) were replaced by efficient LED lights in 2006, said Kim Peterson, director of the city’s Canary Initiative

The new lights cost $35,000, but it’s money the city will recoup in energy savings within three years, Peterson said. The new city-owned holiday lights use 93 percent less energy and generate about 2,500 pounds of carbon each year (compared with some 25 tons produced by an average home).

“We don’t view it as problematic,” Peterson said of energy use from city-owned lights downtown.

Efficient lights, however, do not give the city carte blanche to run lights, Peterson said.

“We want to dress up the town. On the other hand, we want to be as green as possible,” Peterson said.

Peterson could not estimate the cost or impact of privately-owned lights, but said she works with business owners to help them make better choices.

No one in the city or county is writing tickets for hanging twinkling lights on eves, though.

The city response is complaint-driven, and Todd Grange, the city’s code zoning officer, said he hasn’t received any complaints.

In most cases, he talks with residents about their lights and then they comply. And though there is a provision in city code requiring a special permit for event lighting,
he’s never seen one.

Carrington Brown in the county has a similar philosophy, and whether it’s outdoor lights or bear-proof garbage containers, Brown tries to help bring residents into compliance.

“To me being punitive is not a constructive way of doing code enforcement,” Brown said.

He talks with homeowners and said most — nine out of ten — cooperate, and that he’s able to work out solutions and compromises after knocking on doors or leaving notes.

The county code restricts use of not just holiday lights, but any wasteful outdoor lighting, such as driveway lights or large landscape lighting, Brown said.

“The county is trying to control unnecessary light pollution,” Brown said. “There’s no reason to have your house lit up like Wal-Mart.”

Brown said he’ll make exceptions for security lighting, but added that he regularly knocks on doors of homes where entire driveways, for example, are lit up “like a runway.”

There is much confusion between county and city rules about holiday lights, Brown said.

Residents on Red Mountain, for example, might wonder why they are required to douse their holiday lights on Jan. 30, while the city of Aspen below is glowing like Christmas Eve until March 1.

“That’s the kind of thing we should clean up,” Brown said, adding there could be some coordination to city and county codes. “We’re aware that certain parts of the light code need to be updated and tweaked.”