LDS Church wants to light up a temple in a place that prides itself on dark skies

Utah-based faith urges Wasatch County to get on board with new outdoor lighting regulations.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A large empty field is the site of the announced Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in Heber on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. In the foreground is a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse.

Even a “House of the Lord” needs to go through a planning commission.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wants its planned Heber Valley Temple to glow like the faith’s other temples around the world, but Wasatch County will have to take a shine to the plan and change its dark-sky-friendly outdoor lighting regulations for it to happen.

In November, as KPCW first reported, an architecture firm submitted an application on the church’s behalf to change the lighting rules, saying the proposal would allow the “appropriate and subtle highlighting of buildings” while preserving the county’s night skies.

Wasatch County appears ready to make a change, but not one that will lead to more light pollution.

“The general consensus that I have from the council is that, while we are open to amending our code,” County Manager Dustin Grabau said in an interview, “their highest priority is preserving dark-sky standards, and our existing code is not industry standard for dark-sky protections. I think anything that they do adopt would be compliant with dark-sky standards.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Downtown Heber at night on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023.

The existing regulations, which aim to preserve “astronomical observations within the county,” prohibit lighting that points upward but do not limit the total amount of light on a given site.

Core Architecture, the firm that submitted the code amendment application, argued those requirements were adopted when the county had to worry only about regulating simple outdoor lighting. What the church is proposing, the firm contends, would do away with a “challenging and subjective lighting design environment” and usher in a more consistent framework.

The Salt Lake City-based faith wants the new code to allow upward-facing lighting up to a certain brightness.

Unless a project is granted an exception, such lights would need to be turned off by 10 p.m. and could not be turned on again until after 5:30 a.m.

County will still protect its skies

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Night falls in Heber on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023.

Grabau said residents have strong opinions on dark-sky preservation, but changing the lighting code doesn’t have to mean the county’s night skies will have weaker protections.

If a new code emerges, he said, it may have more flexibility than the existing regulations but would overall be more restrictive and ensure additional protections for dark skies.

Wasatch County hired an independent consultant to help craft a new outdoor lighting ordinance that staffers can get behind.

Grabau suspects a final staff recommendation will differ from the church proposal but said there are upward-facing lights that are dark-sky compliant.

“The highest priority that the council has is in protecting dark skies,” Grabau said. “I think it’s entirely possible that they will adopt a standard that’s more conservative than what the applicant would prefer, and, honestly, I don’t know necessarily how they will react to that. And that’s really up to them.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The site of the announced Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in Wasatch County on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023.

Doug Smith, the county’s planning director, said existing code doesn’t address the changes in technology in the two decades since it was adopted.

He said the county already wanted to revisit the regulations because the existing code doesn’t limit the amount of light on a site.

“We anticipate that the final ordinance, if approved, would allow for some up-lighting for nonresidential uses,” Smith wrote in an email, “while placing a cap on the total amount of light allowed for the site as well as limiting the [color temperature] levels for the lighting.”

What happens next?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) An artist's rendering of the Heber Valley Temple on display at a groundbreaking, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.

Smith said his planning staff has recommended updating the lighting code before moving forward on the temple project.

The county’s planning commission will need to hold a public hearing before the County Council can approve any changes.

Smith said the county is awaiting renderings from the church that show the temple’s proposed lighting. The earliest a proposed ordinance could land on an agenda, he said, is next month.

Church spokesperson Sam Penrod said the faith will host an informational meeting for neighbors to see the plans for the temple before sending a proposal to the county for approval. A date for that meeting has not been set.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Russell M. Nelson speaks at the Heber Valley Temple groundbreaking, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.

Church President Russell M. Nelson announced plans for the temple in October 2021 and presided last fall over a groundbreaking for the two-spired, three-story, 88,000-square-foot edifice.

The building is one of 28 existing or planned Latter-day Saint temples in Utah. Members view a temple as a House of the Lord, a place where the faithful participate in their religion’s highest rites, including eternal marriage.