A starring role: community calls for Dark Skies

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN
Managing Editor

  For many, there’s a bright future for Liberty Hill with the amount of commercial and residential growth coming to the area.

  But for some, they see a dark side – literally – that they believe can be an important positive as well.

  There’s a movement afoot in the area to shine a light on the benefits of being a Dark Sky community, and making sure the beauty of the night sky and the stars don’t disappear with urban growth.

  Donna Leonard, who moved to Liberty Hill with her husband in 2015, said growing up in the suburbs meant they really didn’t know what they’d been missing for so long. But an unexpected benefit of having her own few acres in the area was what she saw above at night.

  “The skies, we would just marvel at them,” she said. “There were thousands of stars. I could sit out any night and if I sat there 10 or 15 minutes I’d see a shooting star. One of my favorite things to do when we moved to Liberty Hill was to lie down in the bed of the truck and my husband would drive down the road, and it is sort of a winding road, and with every turn I’d watch the whole universe turn. It was just amazing.”

  That nightly show in the sky began to fade slowly over time, though.

  “Over the years, growth in Liberty Hill and also Leander, was creeping our way and little by little we couldn’t see the stars like we used to,” Leonard said. “To be honest, I thought maybe I’d been imagining it.”

  But an inconvenient power outage served as a reminder of what had been only a few years ago.

  “In February, when the whole town was without lights, the high school wasn’t lit up like it was Las Vegas, the baseball field lights were off and all of 29 was dark, and I stepped out on to my back porch and saw it. I’m not crazy, it really used to be this dark. I could see everything. That was the moment that put me into gear on this.”

  Leonard started Facebook group (Liberty Hill Save Our Stars), with over 200 members already, aimed at reversing some of the light pollution that has come to the area, and working to spread the word on how to preserve that night sky.

  “The change has been gradual,” she said. “It has been little things, businesses going up on 29 and putting up signage, and little by little that glow, that used to be Cedar Park and used to be Leander is now us,” she said, adding that she is not saying she doesn’t want growth and business to come to the area.

  “Growth is inevitable and change is inevitable,” she said. “I’m not anti-business, I’m not anti newcomers. The thing is that nobody moved to Liberty Hill for it to be just like it was wherever they left. People don’t realize that it is really small things, and ways we can have growth and promote development, but have some guidelines on what kind of lights we can use.”

  There is a global community focused on dark skies initiatives, and even a designation communities can earn to let others know that stars and the night sky are important to area residents and businesses. That’s something Liberty Hill City Administrator Lacie Hale hopes to use to bring awareness and change to what is happening locally.

  “I think it would be great for our community,” Hale said. “It would be another tool to help manage our growth and help limit light pollution, which is the biggest thing for Dark Skies, so that we can see the stars above.”

  Earning such a designation is not quick or easy.

  “It is not something we can just do overnight,” Hale said. “The City is going to have to reevaluate our code of ordnances, our lighting and outdoor lighting. I’ve researched other cities that are Dark Sky compliant, like Dripping Springs, Wimberley, Lakewood Village and printed their ordinances to compare to ours. That’s going to be the first step.

  “We have to be nominated by an adjacent Dark Sky community, so it’s not something we can just apply for and get it,” Hale said. “We have to build relationships, we have to make sure our ordinances represent a Dark Skies friendly environment, and then get that formal nomination. We also have to have broad community support for this.”

  It also does not mean a community must forego its lighting at night, but it must be managed differently in an effort to limit that light pollution.

  “The point is about dark skies, not dark ground,” she said. “No one is expecting people to walk around in darkness. You can have light but it doesn’t have to be lit up 24 hours a day for no reason, and when you start looking into the movement you learn the idea that light means safety and security is a myth. You can put a light on a motion detector, or have lights that turn on at a certain time. They don’t need to be pointed up, they should be pointed down, and be the right color of lights.”

  Changes to city ordinances can make some change for the future, but Leonard knows with the city limits being so small that it will take more education and individual effort to do the most good.

  “I think through education we can make change,” Leonard said. “I experienced Liberty Hill right before the boom. We already had dark skies just because we were so small, and now as people and businesses move in, if you’re not thinking about it they won’t realize what we once had and how quickly we’re going to lose it. Future generations won’t know because they won’t see it.”

  With the pace of growth, action sooner rather than later is important.

  “We have to do this now, because it is much harder – for businesses especially – to tell hem they have to make changes,” Leonard said. “Hopefully, this grass roots group can organize for change.”

  With a number of sources available online, Leonard said there are many things residents and business owners can do on their own to help.

  “People can join our Facebook group, or certainly get in touch with me,” Leonard said. “There are lots of resources available.”

  Having grown up in Liberty Hill, Hale agrees that the effort to reverse the impact of the growth on the local night sky is well worth it.

  “This is a long-term commitment, but there is benefit to it to really preserve our ability to see the stars,” Hale said. “I know that’s something I appreciate living in Liberty Hill. I think of being able to preserve what Texas is known for and what Liberty Hill can be known for. It’s the preservation of a natural beauty and the ability to do that here I think would be great.”

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