Noise, light pollution growing with development in Round Rock

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Round Rock city officials have stated this spring its police department will begin to more actively enforce the city’s noise ordinances in the downtown area.

Staff have worked to revise the city’s noise ordinances to effectively address the issue of noise spillover from downtown bars and venues to nearby neighborhoods.

“It is a high priority and something we want addressed,” Brad Wiseman, director of Round Rock Planning & Development Services, said.

But the downtown area is not Round Rock’s only persistently noisy area. Community Impact Newspaper recorded consistently high decibel readings at several points across the city, including the I-35 corridor and the Union Pacific Corp. rail tracks.

As cities such as Round Rock develop, they have to grapple with noise and light pollution, two concerns caused by the unwanted spilling over of background noise and displaced illumination.

NOISE POLLUTION IN ROUND ROCK

Round Rock City Council voted in December to extend alcohol serving hours for bars and restaurants in the city to 2 a.m. The vote faced opposition from nearby neighborhood residents who cited noise concerns.

According to the city’s website, the new noise ordinance will likely recommend more strict changes to decibel limits for downtown establishments.

Police will now take noise measurements at the property lines of bars and restaurants, where previously they were recorded 200 feet away. The venues shall not operate sound equipment in excess of 80 decibels from 10 a.m. to midnight on the weekends. After midnight, that drops to 60 decibels as measured from the property line. The city estimates that will force venues to operate at a noise level approximately 9 decibels lower than previously mandated.

Dr. Angel De La Cruz, an audiologist at Austin Regional Clinic Round Rock, said that the noise pollution residents experience may not cause hearing loss, but the persistent sound can affect emotion and stress levels.

“You look at it more from the [psychological and social]aspect of the impact,” De La Cruz said. “Is it where somebody’s stress levels and anxiety levels are affected by that on a consistent basis?”

In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency added a noise abatement policy to the 1990 Clean Air Act. The agency referenced a 1991 study that found noise pollution can cause “adverse effects on health and well-being.”

In Round Rock, there is no sound generator that consistently produces as much noise as the I-35 corridor. Community Impact Newspaper recorded the interstate at its intersection with Louis Henna Boulevard and recorded an average decibel level of 76.9. The peak noise level was recorded at 92.4 decibels.

The Union Pacific trains that consistently run through Round Rock—the city says it averages 36 trains in a 24-hour period—have train horns that can measure as high as 104 decibels at 100 feet away, according to the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association.

Round Rock is currently undertaking a cooperative effort with Union Pacific to eliminate the need for train horns in the city. The two entities are working on rail crossing improvements throughout the city to create railroad “quiet zones.”

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, train engineers must start sounding their horns at least 15 seconds in advance of all public crossings. In quiet zones, safety precautions at railroad crossings are enhanced so trains are no longer required to sound their horns unless the conductor sees a hazard on the tracks.

“That should cut down on the horns being blown as the trains go through those zones. It’s not something that happens quickly, unfortunately,” Wiseman said.

In a Feb. 8 NextDoor question thread posted by Community Impact Newspaper, several Round Rock residents stated Dell Diamond on Hwy. 79 is the “noisiest place” in the city.

Wiseman said the city has a special provision in its noise ordinance for the baseball stadium to operate as an entertainment venue. The planning director said he has heard some complaints from residents about noise from Dell Diamond when concerts are hosted at the stadium.

“Stadium-sanctioned events are exempt from the noise ordinance, and that’s just a fact of if we want a stadium and that type of entertainment. … We’re going to have to allow it to behave like a stadium,” Wiseman said.

LIGHT POLLUTION IN ROUND ROCK

Data shows that light pollution is a much more pervasive problem in Round Rock than noise pollution, and there are very few areas left in the city unaffected by it.

“Light pollution is light in the wrong place,” said James Lynch, outreach coordinator for the Austin Astronomical Society. “It’s not that there is too much; it’s that it is in the wrong place. A lot of light going up into the sky is pollution.”

Lynch said light pollution can come from a multitude of sources: federally-mandated lights atop trucks and buses on I-35, unshielded lamps at gas stations and car dealerships, or exterior light fixtures on houses.

John Upton is an amateur astronomer and the outreach coordinator for the Williamson County Astronomy Club, and he said in the past three decades he has lived in the area, he has watched its light pollution health decline.

“For the most part, Round Rock as a whole is pretty well-lit, as you would expect any city,” Upton said.

Data from the Light Pollution Map—an interactive map that shows information from several satellite sources—shows that Round Rock’s most light-polluted area is the I-35 corridor. Upton and Lynch both said the state actually does a good job limiting light spillover with its downward-facing lamps, though the corridor attracts businesses that may not place an emphasis on limiting light that escapes from its fixtures.

Map progression over the past four years shows light pollution is growing throughout Round Rock. As more houses and neighborhoods are developed, the city’s light pollution footprint grows.

“We’re a growing suburban community. We have a lot of commercial areas—obviously there’s lighting in several commercial corridors,” Wiseman said. “I’m not aware of any concerns in the community about lighting or light pollution.”

Lynch said the city of Round Rock can only see through the light pollution to view stars with a apparent brightness magnitude of three or below. Apparent magnitude is a logarithmic measure of the brightness of a star or other celestial body.

That cut off in brightness makes it so several constellations are incomplete, according to Lynch and Upton, including some of the most recognizable constellations.

Rigel, one of the Orion’s “feet” and the brightest star in the constellation, measures at an apparent magnitude of 0.2. Meissa, the star in Orion’s head, has an apparent magnitude of 3.5 and is out of sight for residents of Round Rock.

According to Wiseman, Round Rock’s only lighting ordinances generally concern potential spillover from lighting around construction sites. The city has also required construction crews to add shielding to certain light fixtures to eliminate lighting adjacent properties.

But Round Rock does not maintain any ordinances on outdoor lighting fixtures and bulbs or any restrictions on how much light is permitted to escape into the sky, according to Wiseman.

Cindy Luongo Cassidy, leader of the International Dark Sky-Association’s Texas chapter, said that any city in Texas can require a range of lighting controls, such as lighting temperature or light shielding.

“Having a maximum amount of light per area in illuminated areas allows the illumination to be more consistent,” Luongo Cassidy said. “[It] allows you to see better than if one property was illuminated very brightly in the middle of other properties that were gently illuminated.”

As more homes are built in Round Rock and more businesses continue to move in, it is certain that light pollution will continue to worsen, Upton said. The Williamson County astronomer said you can observe the difference of light pollution in the area over the past handful of years, let alone the last decade.

Both Lynch and Upton said aspiring stargazers now have to travel more than an hour west of the city to find truly pristine skies—as far as Junction, per Upton.

“It’s really just missing out on really how pretty the night sky can be. That’s what I think people miss as time goes on,” Upton said.

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  1. Karen Marquardt

    Round Rock’s lack of light ordinances has driven this issue. A bank near my home has so much nighttime lighting that I could take nighttime photos without a flash, and read in the parking lot at midnight! When I moved to Round Rock 25 years ago, I could see the Milky Way from my home, now I can only see the brightest stars. Empty parking lots don’t need to be lit, roads don’t need street lights 20 feet taller than those in neighborhoods, and porches don’t need spotlights. Thinking about lighting ordinances helps dark skies, and saves on energy.

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Iain Oldman
Iain Oldman joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2017 after spending two years in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he covered Pittsburgh City Council. His byline has appeared in PublicSource, WESA-FM and Scranton-Times Tribune. Iain worked as the reporter for Community Impact Newspaper's flagship Round Rock/Pflugerville/Hutto edition and is now working as the reporter for Northwest Austin.
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