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Camp Bullis and the Military Lighting Overlay District

Updated: Sep 25, 2018

If you are a homeowner in Leon Springs, or are at all familiar with the area, you are no doubt aware of the impact nearby Camp Bullis has on local land use. Whether it is effecting how a city can annex new land in the area, or how a developer can clear land for development, not much happens around here from a land use perspective without the Army's input. One method of protecting the training base we have been hearing about lately is the City's Military Lighting Overlay District. This city ordinance effects what sort of lighting can be displayed by both residential and commercial landowners within a certain distance of the base for the purpose of preserving the extreme darkness necessary for military training.

As early as 1906, the U.S. Army began acquiring the land that makes up what is now the 28,000 acre complex known collectively as Camp Bullis and Camp Stanley. Originally sought for its remoteness, the Military's mission around Leon Springs has been continuously endangered by San Antonio's northern expansion. In 2008, the City passed its first ordinance establishing the Military Lighting Overlay District. Catering to San Antonio's strong image as Military City USA, city officials designed the new law "to reduce light intensity levels, glare, direction and light pollution in areas surrounding military bases in order to preserve the capability for night-time training." The original law accomplished these goals by mandating downward light fixtures outdoors, regulating light intensity, and restricting lighting after 11:00pm within a 5 mile radius of the base.

Instrumental in discussing the MLOD is an understanding what an Overlay District is. Much like traditional zoning, the overlay district is an exercise of the police power, which allows states to regulate behavior and enforce order within their territory for the betterment of the health, safety, morals, and general welfare of their inhabitants. That power is further defined in Chapter 211 of the Texas Local Government Code, which delegates the task of zoning to Texas municipalities within their corporate limits. Because the overlay district is sourced in the police power, it is not considered a "government taking" or an act of "eminent domain" resulting in the need to compensate the landowner. It is also worth noting that the overlay district does not change or affect the base zoning of a region or particular parcel. Specifically, An overlay district is a zoning layer placed on top of a base zoning district that serves to protect and create distinct areas of a community by identifying special design and/or development requirements in addition to those in the underlying base zoning district.

While the original 2008 MLOD Ordinance successfully protected the Army's mission for 10 years, recent changes have sought to enhance existing regulations. One large change not directly relevant to Leon Springs, but that will certainly effect San Antonio as a whole, is the extension of the MLOD to include the 5 mile radiuses around Joint Base San Antonio Lackland and Lackland Medina Annex. This inclusion will protect the Air Forces's flight plans from excessive light pollution in the area. Most important among recent changes, however, is the split of the MLOD to differentiate between 3 mile and 5 mile radiuses around bases. Within 3 miles of a base, landowners are subject to the designation MLR-1, while the 3-5 mile radius is subject to MLR-2. Overall, the new ordinance is much more detailed, giving specific requirements for maximum lumen levels, vertical illuminance, and BUG requirements (Backlight, Uplight, and Glare). The maximum levels of light depend upon the zone and use of the land. Check out the full ordinance here. Existing structures will be grandfathered in, while new development and additions will be subject to the new ordinance.

Although the new ordinance may seem overly burdensome to new home builds and commercial development, it is always important to remember the source of these laws. The passing of municipal ordinances like the MLOD is essentially a reflection of the City's desire to promote the Military's mission in order to protect the health, safety, morals, and general welfare under the police power. While it may feel an awful lot like a governmental taking to local residents subject to the new restrictions, we must not forget the importance of a military presence that brings countless jobs and billions in local revenue to the people of San Antonio.


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