Dark Sky Ordinances Keeping the Stars Bright in Texas
The classic musical tribute to the Lone Star state, “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” boasts of how “the stars at night are big and bright,” an attribute many municipalities would like to maintain in the sky above.
In an era of state preemption of city laws in Texas, my recent blog concerning city ordinances (and plastic grocery bags) is followed by a different area of city regulation: outdoor lighting. The Texas Supreme Court decided today (June 22) that plastic bags, which can pollute the water supply and environment, may not be banned by municipal ordinance under the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act.
By contrast, there is no state preemptive law regulating outdoor lighting, and Texas cities are regulating outdoor lighting and another form of pollution: light pollution. In big cities such as Houston, it is easy to get accustomed to the bright city lights. The night lights go nearly unnoticed, until I am in a part of Texas with fewer people than the 6 million living in the Houston metro area.
What have become known as Dark Sky ordinances are on the rise in Texas municipalities in recent years. Separate from the issues of excessive light, waste of energy, and its effects on flora, fauna and human health, there is a legal issue of “light trespass.” Light trespass refers to lighting directed into areas where it is not wanted, such as your neighbor’s security lights shining directly into your bedroom (trust me, this is a trespass I have experienced), or the retail center lights that stay lit continuously keeping your property illuminated all the time.
It makes sense for a municipality to establish clear guidelines for property owners, such as requirements for redirection of light, shielding of light, redesign or relocation of the light, replacement of the light, or removal of the light completely. Many city ordinances are drafted for these purposes, and to avoid nuisance lighting or light trespass, but other cities seek to preserve the natural beauty of a dark starry night. Here in Texas, the stars at night are indeed big and bright!
Preservation of the natural night sky and tackling the issue of light pollution is an international area of concern. Residual light pollution is the upward light emission that reflects from the lit surfaces and atmospheric scatter. The environmental impacts of this residual light pollution affect wildlife, human health, and stellar visibility. Light pollution generates significant costs, including negative impacts on wildlife, health, astronomy, and wasted energy which in the U.S. amounts to nearly 7 billion dollars annually.
In Texas, the only state statute regulating upward light emissions was signed in 2011, when then Governor Rick Perry signed House Bill 2857, instructing seven counties around the McDonald Observatory in West Texas to adopt outdoor lighting ordinances. The Act took effect beginning on January 1, 2012, now Texas Local Government Code §§229.051-229.054. These Texas statutes apply only to the counties surrounding the McDonald Observatory, but cities across Texas are enacting lighting ordinances.
A few Texas cities are making a conscious effort to achieve International Dark Sky Certification. To date, Wimberley, Dripping Springs, and Horseshoe Bay have achieved certification, and are known as dark skies communities. If you have not visited these Texas cities, put them on your bucket list. I am in love with all three.
The International Dark Skies Association has more than 60 local, state, country and regional chapters across the globe working to protect night skies. We have a chapter in Texas located in Driftwood. One of the cities our firm represents has a lighting ordinance, but it is one of only a few.
To learn more about the Texas chapter of International Dark Sky Association, visit their website. If you are interested in doing more for your city, reach out to your elected officials, and remember to turn the lights out when you close the door.
Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our municipal law practice can be found here.