The Stars at Night…

By on November 18, 2020

The Alpine Downtown Association is working with local businesses, nonprofits and the public sector to better preserve our internationally renowned dark skies. Recent community workshops have worked with City Council to discuss revisions to the City of Alpine lighting ordinance.

READ MORE: Texan By Nature: Dark Skies Initiative | Apache Corporation’s Dark Skies Efforts

For decades, night sky proponents in Alpine and surrounding Big Bend communities have advocated to protect our exceptionally dark night skies. The Big Bend region is a renowned night sky destination. Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park have each received dark sky certifications from the International Dark Sky Association. Together the two parks form the largest contiguous area under dark sky protection in the United States. In 2009, the 3,100 acre Sierra la Rana development south of Alpine was certified as a Dark Sky Friendly Development of Distinction.

Protecting our night sky means engaging many stakeholders and strategies.

Many inside and outside of the Alpine community place high value on the protection of night skies, the benefits are numerous. Studies have shown that light pollution can be detrimental to health and negatively impact wildlife. The success of the world-renowned McDonald Observatory depends on the quality of the dark skies surrounding the observatory. Safety of residents and visitors can be increased with properly installed and aimed night-sky friendly lighting that improves nighttime visibility. Light trespass and nuisances created by overly-lit properties can be mitigated through enhanced protections for neighbors and residents.

Most importantly, protecting and promoting dark skies also has the economic benefit of boosting tourism to Big Bend communities. Over 80,000 visitors come to McDonald Observatory annually and Fort Davis hosts the Texas Star Party, one of the largest annual gatherings of amateur astronomers in the country. A 2016 National Park Service Report indicated that Big Bend National Park’s 388,290 visitors had an economic impact of $37.9 million to the local economies; 2019 visitor metrics recorded 463,832 visitors, demonstrating a dramatic increase in tourism and correlating economic impact to the region. Without the protection of night skies, communities would lose the economic benefit astro- and eco-tourism brings to the region and the City of Alpine.

History and Background

The existing Outdoor Lighting Ordinance of the City of Alpine was adopted on September 7, 2010. It preceded the passage of HB 2857 which went into effect on January 1, 2012. HB 2857 mandated that a municipality located in a county any part of which is located within 57 miles of the McDonald Observatory shall regulate, by ordinance, the installation and use of outdoor lighting. While HB 2857 primarily meant to protect the quality of skies for scientific study at the Observatory, all of the communities in the 28,000 square miles surrounding the Observatory also benefit.

Since the existing Alpine Outdoor Lighting Ordinance went into effect in 2010, there have been many technological advances to lighting design. Transition away from incandescent and mercury vapor lights to the LED allows for new design and options for lighting. Adaptive controls allow users to determine when lights are turned on. The science around the impacts of light pollution has become more refined and new solutions created. It is important to ensure that Alpine’s lighting regulations are periodically updated to reaffirm community values and adapt to changing technology, best practices, and to position Alpine to seek its own dark sky community certification.

Ordinance Revisions

The proposed revisions seek to strengthen and enhance the existing ordinance:

  • Updated and clarified definitions
  • Set maximum color temperature of lights to 2700 Kelvin
  • Set maximum lumens per acre cap for commercial and residential properties
  • Instituted prohibition against light trespass
  • Incorporated provisions for the treatment of indoor lighting impacting outdoor lighting
  • Clarified non-conforming lights and process for bringing into compliance over time
  • Removed inconsistencies of existing ordinance
  • Accounted for new technologies in lighting design such as the use of adaptive controls
  • Determined process for application for the installation of new lighting and spelled outenforcement mechanisms
  • Updated and clarified the categories for exempt and temporary lighting