Buda moves toward official dark-sky designation with small-town roots in mind

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Rex Drake, chairperson of the Buda Sustainability Commission, has seen what happens to stargazing when cities grow. After growing up in a town of 1,200 near Lake Tahoe, in 1994 he moved to Allen, Texas, near Dallas.

“When I moved there it was great—I could sit in my driveway and watch the stars,” Drake said. “By the time I left 15 years later, I couldn’t see the stars.”

When he arrived in Buda in 2014, Drake could see the stars again—and he wants it to stay that way. When the sustainability commission was formed in 2017, he volunteered in part to help the city become dark sky-certified by the International Dark Sky Association, or IDA.

Work done since then by the members of the commission—which advises the City Council on environmental issues and other topics—and city staff means the application to become a dark-sky community will likely be finished sometime in the fall.

“I wanted to make sure that something like this was in place to help preserve our views of the night sky,” Drake said.

The IDA is a Tucson-based nonprofit that has been giving dark-sky certifications since the 1980s, but in recent years a number of communities in and around the Hill Country—Wimberley, Woodcreek, Dripping Springs and Horseshoe Bay as well as several neighborhoods in the region—have gone through the process of becoming official dark-sky communities.

Adam Dalton, director of the IDA’s Dark Sky Places program, said dark-sky communities start the process for a variety of reasons, including economic development and a sense of environmental responsibility, but also to retain a certain identity.

“Especially in the American Southwest—where night skies is really a cultural thing, where people remember growing up with an incredible starscape and really value that resource,” Dalton said.

Residents and officials of Buda, similarly, worry about the impact of growth on its small-town feel.

“I think just Buda’s moniker as the [outdoor capital of Texas]and the great natural landscape that we have here and the desire to set aside and maintain some of that rural heritage for Buda are some of the driving forces behind this,” Assistant City Manager Micah Grau said.

The IDA has a number of programs under the umbrella of the International Dark Sky Place Program, each with its own specific standards and requirements. A dark sky park or sanctuary, for example, must be below a certain threshold of light pollution in order to qualify. But for towns like Buda that are looking to become dark-sky communities, the certification is more about education and planning for the future than it is about the current levels of light pollution.

“[The dark-sky designation] is meant to highlight places that take a holistic approach to mitigating light pollution,” Dalton said. “It’s a really multifaceted designation.”

As part of the dark-sky certification process, cities must conduct a survey of existing public lighting, retrofit existing public lighting and adopt ordinances that will dictate what kind of lighting can be used in public places as well as in future private development. Communities with the designation must also take baseline sky-quality measurements and must submit an annual report to the IDA.

Buda is working on all these steps. Currently, the sustainability commission members are finishing up the survey of public lighting while city staff looks at the 2017 Unified Development Code. That document, according to Grau, was written with dark-sky certification in mind, but there may be specific language that needs to be changed.

“It’s a complex process,” Grau said. “The biggest thing is having strong enough codes and putting in lights in the future that are compliant.”

Drake, who in his professional life designs lighting on commercial buildings, said the intention of becoming dark sky-certified is to create benefits for Buda residents but not to burden the city—and he thinks that is possible.

“I have seen a lot of well-intentioned communities enact ordinances that didn’t have a lot of input, and you end up with an ordinance that was very difficult to comply with. And in some cases, difficult and expensive to comply with. If it’s done well, it doesn’t really have to add any cost,” he said. “I want a great night sky, but I don’t want to make it hard on developers, either.”

In terms of the development community’s response to potentially restrictive lighting ordinances, much has changed, Dalton said.

“A previous person who was in my role said that when he started five or six years ago there was almost universal pushback from the development community,” he said. “[Now] it’s just much more mainstream within the public consciousness both in terms of an issue and also in terms of an environmental issue.”

Drake said his experience reflected the same shift.

“Ten years ago there was a lot of pushback—10-15 years ago—now not so much. A lot of cities have some kind of lighting ordinance,” he said. “I think a lot of people look at it as more of it’s the right thing to do.”

With the commission wrapping up its survey of public lighting and city staff working on language to update the development code, Buda’s next step is to think about the outreach portion of the IDA dark-sky designation, either through a university or with a member of the community interested in doing educational events, which is likely to happen this summer.

Grau said city officials and staff hope that earning the dark-sky designation will help Buda grow responsibly.

“People move to Buda because they don’t want to live in a big city, and so we want to maintain our rural heritage,” Grau said. “We want to continue to grow, but we want to grow responsibly.”

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Katharine Jose has written about politics, infrastructure, environment, development, natural disasters and other subjects for The New York Observer, Capital New York, and The New York Times, among other publications. She was an editor for several publications in New York City before she moved to Texas, and has a master's degree in urban planning from the University of Texas-Austin.
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