There are few places like the Hill Country when it comes to viewing night skies. And Comal County wants to keep it that way as development continues to make it one of the fastest growing counties in the United States.
Less than 40 miles north, Dripping Springs was the state’s first to become dark sky-certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.
Municipalities throughout the region, including Comal County, have taken steps to protect the view of the skies. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, an estimated 80 percent of Americans have never seen the Milky Way.
An Arizona-based nonprofit that has set standards for lighting and protected the skies since 1988, IDA gives dark-sky certifications to cities, parks, developments and other places that have specific dark sky policies that reduce light pollution and that work to educate the public about the impacts of light pollution.
“All over the Hill Country [dark skies]is a big deal,” said Cindy Cassidy, the leader of IDA’s Texas chapter. “There are also amazing people in North Texas at parks, historical sites and camps trying to get dark sky-certified.”
Within two hours of New Braunfels, several other dark sky places are found: the city of Horseshoe Bay, the Austin neighborhoods of Lost Creek and River Hills, Enchanted Rock, and Wimberley Valley.
While not officially certified, Comal County passed an ordinance in December to preserve the night sky.
Cliff Kaplan, Night Skies program manager for nonprofit Hill Country Alliance, said the alliance has worked on dark-sky preservation since 2010.
“Star-filled night skies are part of Texas heritage,” he said. “It’s some- thing that all Texans should be able to enjoy, and we have really extraordinary skies in Central Texas. However, we are losing those skies because of the rapid growth in our region.”
Why protect the sky?
In Dripping Springs, the local effort originated from residents who got together in the late ‘90s to ask for lighting restrictions. Since then, it has become a source of pride for most residents, according to city administrator Michelle Fischer.
“It started initially with people concerned about losing the night sky and the stars at night,” she said. “But it’s so much more now that there’s more knowledge about the health benefits and energy implications.”
Cassidy said dark-sky ordinances can help cities conserve energy and can improve human health, neighborhood safety and reduce unnatural light’s influences on nature.
Many dark-sky ordinances reduce light pollution by requiring outdoor lighting to be shielded to reduce glare and light trespass, Cassidy said. Ordinances also limit the use of outdoor lights
that burn at a higher, “cooler” wavelength, she said.
Lights that are cooler–measured as above 3,000 on the kelvin temperature scale–hinder the body’s ability to produce proper amounts of melatonin at night, Cassidy said. Melatonin is a hormone that allows humans to achieve deep sleep at night, helps the immune system recover and can also slow the growth of cancer cells.
Comal County in the process
The Hill Country Alliance outlines dozens of ordinances passed for outdoor lighting in Central Texas, including in Comal County.
Its Night Sky ordinance passed in December 2018 added to the Comal County Commissioners Court approval of a 2008 order approved to regulate outdoor lighting within three miles of Camp Bullis, southwest of New Braunfels.
Commissioners passed an ordinance that encourages “outdoor lighting fixture and practices that “follow up-to-date guidelines and use available technologies for efficient, non-intrusive lighting and will endeavor to educate and encourage landowners, businesses, residential neighborhoods, and public entities to join in this commitment to reduce energy consumption, save money, reduce light trespass and preserve our starry night skies.”
The process to be certified
For a place to become dark sky-certified, the entity must implement and enforce outdoor lighting ordinances, promote dark sky education and set good examples for surrounding com- munities, according to IDA.
Cassidy said because Dripping Springs already had ordinances in place, the application process only took about eight months. However, for areas that have yet to implement lighting regulations, it could take years before an application is accepted, she said.
Once certified, place has to submit an annual report to maintain the status, Fischer said. Requirements include hosting dark-sky awareness events, making an effort to further educate the public of dark-sky benefits and documenting developments that have been built under the IDA light regulations. Soon after Dripping Springs was named Texas’ first dark sky city in 2014, the cities of Wimberley and Woodcreek approached the city for help to get certified, which finally took place in 2018, Fischer said. Fredericksburg, which is working on getting certified, based many of its light ordinance language on the Dripping Springs ordinances.
Hill Country Alliance has helped host the annual Dark Sky Conference in Fredericksburg since last year. Participation from several communities in a regional discussion was vital for dark sky preservation of both urban and rural areas locally, officials said.
“Once you have one dark-sky dot on the map, you need many more dots to connect them in order to stop that spread of light pollution,” said Susan Silberman, secretary of the River Hills Neighborhood Association in Austin. “We are grass-roots. If we could do it, anybody can. Anybody who is motivated and incentivized can do it.”
Joe Warner contributed to this report