Dripping Springs is one of the best cities in Texas to stare at the night sky, and was the state’s first to become dark sky-certified by the International Dark-Sky Association. Since, the area has become a hotbed for dark sky preservation. City Administrator Michelle Fischer said there are currently more groups developing dark-sky ordinances or getting dark sky-certified in Texas, specifically the Hill Country, than any other area in the world.
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.
Four other dark sky places are found within 50 miles of Austin: the city of Horseshoe Bay, the Austin neighborhoods of Lost Creek and River Hills, and Wimberley Valley.
“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.”
While not officially certified, many Travis County cities have ordinances on the books to preserve the night sky, including Austin and Sunset Valley.
“It’s not so much about not having any light outside, but about having better light outside,” said Carolyn Meredith, parks and natural resource manager for Sunset Valley.
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 something 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 dark sky?
In Dripping Springs, Fischer said the local effort originated from residents who got together in the late ’90s to ask for lighting restrictions. Since, it has become a source of pride for most residents in the area, she said.
“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.
River Hills, a small neighborhood on the south bank of Lake Austin, earned its dark-sky certification in 2017. River Hills Neighborhood Association Secretary Susan Silberman said that in addition to reducing the impacts of light pollution on human health and wildlife, the association views preservation as the obligation of a “good steward.”
“Our job is to be good stewards to natural resources,” Silberman said. “It’s a question of stewardship and responsible ownership.”
Silberman said the efforts to promote a “grass-roots campaign” in River Hills rose awareness of area dark-sky preservation.
“Literally go everywhere you can, talk about [light pollution] as much as you can to as many people,” she said. “People are better versed, better informed, more interested, and they seem more invested in it [now] because they see what could happen if we lost the night sky.”
Fischer said there has not been pushback from the community against the lighting ordinances. In fact, there is a large push from community members to make people comply when they are not in compliance, she said.
“Once residents understand that they don’t need big security lights glaring across the property to be safe, they see it as common sense,” Cassidy said. “You can actually see better and save money with [dark-sky] lighting.”
Fischer said most area developers also accept the lighting requirements without much conflict once they learn the benefits.
Local businesses and developers have taken it upon themselves to have dark-sky information available online and make it part of marketing, she said. The Headwaters subdivision has a community park with a stargazing amphitheater, while the Caliterra subdivision hosts star parties throughout the year, Fischer said. New commercial developments, such as Belterra Village, also work to make sure tenants use acceptable lighting practices, she said.
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 communities, 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, a 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.
Other area action
“We always thought of [Sunset Valley] as being dark sky-friendly, but we realized a few years ago that we weren’t actually designated by the IDA,” Meredith said. “If you look at shopping centers within the city the majority are already dark sky-compliant.”
In June, Sunset Valley revised its land-development code to assure all future construction will comply with city lighting ordinances. All commercial properties in Sunset Valley have until 2028 to be brought into compliance, Meredith said. In August, City Council also approved a complaint-driven ordinance that would reduce light trespass.
Austin Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens said the city has commercial lighting standards that address dark-sky preservation, including requiring fully-shielded fixtures. Policies were adopted in 2006 and refined in 2013.
She said Austin Energy also offers residential properties credits through its Green Building Program if they install dark sky-friendly lighting.
In 2017, Austin passed the Children’s Outdoor Bill Of Rights, which listed “gazing at the night sky” as a right.
While regulations are a good step, Kaplan said increasing awareness of the importance to preserve the night sky is more important.
Hill Country Alliance has helped host the annual Dark Sky Conference in Fredericksburg since last year. Kaplan said having participation from Austin, Travis County and other communities in a regional discussion was vital for dark sky preservation of both urban and rural areas locally.
“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,” Silberman said. “We are grass-roots. If we could do it, anybody can. Anybody who is motivated and incentivized can do it.”