The Bortle scale measures the night sky’s brightness at a particular location. Class 1 is the darkest sky on Earth and Class 9 shows what the sky looks like from the inner city.
Courtesy of the International Dark-Sky Association

By Terry Retter

There has been a lot of discussion surrounding the use of fiesta lights or string lights in back yards. These discussions have been supported by an increasing volume of social media posts in NextDoor Somersett and on Facebook.

Some people have suggested to me that a large majority of the Somersett community support the use of these lights and a few have even suggested modifying the Somersett PUD so these lights can be used without any limitations.

Somersett is defined by our governing documents as a “dark sky” community.  To modify these governing documents is a time consuming and somewhat expensive undertaking and one that should be started only when there are some very compelling reasons to do so.

The premise of dark-sky communities is relatively simple. Towns, homeowners, and developers should “use the right amount of light, in the right place, at the right time.” This doesn’t mean towns shrouded in darkness. Instead, communities enforce quality outdoor-lighting ordinances, educate their populace on how to promote dark skies, and encourage thoughtful placement of lighting. It’s all about reducing the ever-expanding glow.

One of the first questions asked by dark sky proponents is, “Have you seen the Milky Way?” Surprisingly, the answer by a large majority of people is “no.” In my opinion, this is a shame. We moved from the San Francisco area where city lights are prevalent and bright. We moved to Somersett partly because it was a new community without a lot of lights and you could see the night sky.  There are a large number of skiers in Somersett who know what the Alpine night looks like and that night reveals the enormous number of stars and, of course, the Milky Way.

Somersett is not the only community with a dark sky policy. Summit Sky Ranch in Colorado is setting the standard for new developments. This is a 416-acre family home development. While not as big as Somersett, it has many of the same community aspirations.

So, what does this have to do with the installation of fiesta lights? The easy answer is they are not compliant with the documented lighting regulations that lights must be shielded with no upward illumination. But beyond the regulations, these lights have an impact on the overall illumination of our night sky and a number of these across adjoining yards have a cumulative impact on the night sky.

One of the great attractions of Somersett was the approximation of being an Alpine environment without having to be at high elevations.  We can see the night sky with all the stars and such but not have to endure the many feet of snow which goes with the Alpine experience. The increasing number of homes with excessive lighting is diminishing this experience.  The growth of the use of fiesta light strings further impacts this.

So I, along with some others who have expressed concerns, am not in favor of approving a variance for the implementation of fiesta lights and do think that more consistent controls should be employed throughout the community. This certainly needs more discussion and deliberation.

15 thoughts on “Homeowner’s Forum: Dark skies and fiesta lights”

  1. I’m in support the use of string lights within certain time constraints (i.e. lights off at 9:30pm) and I think there is enough support within our community to succeed in changing our CC&Rs to reflect this.

    1. We, too, moved to Somersett for the dark skies, natural landscape and quiet. We’ve lived here only about 10 months and have noticed excessively bright LED outdoor lights (porch and garage lights) that are left on all night and spoil the environment for everyone. We’re against allowing any lights that further ruin what is truly a unique gift in today’s overcrowded and light-polluted world. The HOA should not even be considering such a change without extensive homeowner input and a full review of the potential legal issues associated with such a significant modification to the governing documents of this dark sky community.

  2. Dark Sky designations are a precious natural resource, as important as saving what’s left of the coral reefs or the animal kingdom There are precious few dark sky designations around the world.

    I too am a Bay Area transplant and am greatly enjoying the big skies in Reno. I don’t want another urban sky experience which is essentially “no sky”. I also think that allowing a certain kind of lighting may become a slippery slope leading to other light exception requests.

    Lastly, amending the bylaws is long and expensive and that doesn’t appeal. The Board should remain focused on more immediate needs.

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

    Sallie Frainier

  3. Thanks Terry.

    I also moved here from a place that seeing a shooting star was a rare thng. I chose Somersett for many reasons, one of which was the dark sky classification. With the number of houses built around my neighborhood alone, i feel like the viewing quality of the night sky has decreased 10 fold in the last few years. It is a shame and I do not feel that the builders are always being held to the standards of what they install on the exteriors of the new houses. If you haven’t looked at our skies recenlty, do it the next couple of nights, do it tonight or tomorrow. There is a major meteor shower, the Lyrids. Ask your neighbors to turn off their string lights and overly bright front lights see how big a difference it makes.

  4. This is a helpful discussion. I guess the question is, should we stay a “dark-sky” community or not? Let the community vote.

    One suggestion, maybe rather than simply say no fiesta lights allowed, give the HOA some qualitative room to decide if a homeowners lights meet quality and aesthetic guideline approval. I know that is easier said than done. But, if an example is inexpensive string lights strung haphazardly vs. a professional and clean string/design of bistro lights, you can easily make a case for supporting one vs. the other. If the look enhances value and homeowners want it, let them do it.

  5. Thank you Terry. My husband and I also greatly appreciate the fact that Somersett is a dark sky community. This makes Somersett a very unique community to live in and we enjoy the opportunity we have to sit out in our backyard and watch the stars. Perhaps there is a local representative from the Dark Sky Association (https://www.darksky.org) that could teach homeowners about the value of being a dark sky community and homeowners could ask questions?

  6. I believe when you move into an area, it’s usually for specific reasons. One of the reasons for moving to the Somersett area, was for the natural surroundings, which include the gorgeous sky views at night. I believe the HOA SHOULD hold the homeowners to the rules that they all agreed to abide by when they moved here. Seems so simple.

  7. Your points are well taken and I understand your position however,the documents were conceived 15 yrs ago and time marches on. In the time since these were implemented there has been lots of developments to the North, south ,east and west that greatly diminished the ability to achieve a Dark Sky community.
    An Alpine environment is a nice thought BUT Reno is geographically considered a Great Basin High Desert not Alpine. Even the communities in Tahoe and Truckee don’t have a Dark Sky rule and they are truly Alpine. They just ask that you follow sensible use practices with the amount of time and usage of lighting. And that’s all we are asking for.
    As our area continues to grow in all directions it will be impossible to maintain a Dark Sky when we will be surrounded by neighborhoods that don’t have that rule. The opportunity to preserve the Dark Sky Rule is limited due to the growth in our area. It’s not a realistic goal.
    I have done a limited poll and 95% are in agreement that we should allow for the bistro lights. As stated before we would be willing to compromise in the number of lights and limitations on hours of usage. The majority are only wanting them to use to enjoy their backyard during the evening. Not to illuminate all night . I’m currently in the process of obtaining google earth night photos of our area present and past that would reflect the amount of illumination in our area . This would quantify with facts about the amount of lumens being emitted at night. This way we can present this matter in a factual matter. And furthermore are we talking about enforcing the letter of this issue or the spirit of the issue? Because many aspects of the lighting rule have been neglected or ignored for many years. ( landscape up lights, club house other with bistro lights that have never seen a citation) etc..so if we are going to enforce this code then shouldn’t it be enforced for all manner of lighting? And not selective enforcement?

  8. The purpose of this message is not pro or anti Dark Sky. It is to let everyone know that modifying the Somersett PUD is not expensive. The City paperwork is $4,125 for review by the Community Development Department plus $700 for review by the County Health Department. In my opinion, the effort to modify the PUD should include multiple issues and not just one.

  9. We moved from the Truckee area “Where the Stars Shine Brighter” (per the licence plate frame) and so enjoyed the night sky there. Residents in the Truckee area self-regulated their use of outdoor lighting so that everyone could enjoy the wonders to behold in the night sky. In 30 years there, we were able to observe the Milky Way and other events, like comets. One of the reasons for choosing Somersett to relocate to, was for the Dark Sky Community. We also didn’t realize that the added benefit would be to be able to sleep through the night without our neighbor’s outdoor lights affecting the quality of our sleep especially due to the close proximity of most of the homes in this community.

    Yet, our sleep quality is continuously affected by neighbors leaving on outdoor lights all night long. If the current CCR’s are not observed by some continuously, then there is already an issue. The question is to revisit Dark Sky regulations, my opinion is to leave our community “Dark Sky” and enforce other outdoor lighting regulations. I value a beautiful night sky and a deep restful sleep at night without light pollution.

    Thank you asking and providing this forum.

  10. Desiree makes a very compelling argument FOR Dark Skies in two ways.
    First, by highlighting the development AROUND us. Shouldn’t that be all the MORE reason to preserve what most of us cherish and what compelled us to make this awesome place home?
    Like all of us, we worked extremely hard for over 50 years to achieve this goal! Please don’t try to take it away for personal reasons!!

    Second, Desiree points out that the existing rules haven’t been enforced for some.
    Is this really a reason to add more opportunity for additional abuse, OR should we more consistently and evenly enforce the existing rules as they apply to EVERYONE?
    Like taxes, we can’t pick and choose which rules to abide by, and we knew what we were signing up for when we elected to call Somersett home!

    Many of us have noticed that Desiree’s numerous fiesta lights are very visible from the sidewalk, both lanes of Somersett Parkway, as well as the homes above hers…

    Desiree, considering the topography, where do you anticipate the additional growth Directly around us that you reference?
    As previously mentioned, this is NOT the city…on purpose, and their needs do not ALWAYS apply to us, and vice versa. Thank God!!

    Desiree states that there isn’t an official Dark Skies policy in Truckee, or Tahoe. I would encourage her to drive to their surrounding areas after dark, especially in the new developments that are currently under construction like west of Prosser Lake, Martin Camp, and so many other locations.
    Please consider that is in CALIFORNIA, which many of us fled!! Try convincing the residents of Incline Village, in Nevada, or even those on the western shore!

  11. It would be great for the street lamp at the intersection of Briargate Court and Whisper Rock Way be brought into conformity with the other street lights. These are not even main streets with much traffic and the bulb must be an LED well above 4K that does not fit into a dark sky philosophy. If we’re holding residents to standards, the association needs to get in line as well.

  12. I am opposed to changing the CC&Rs (and perhaps the PUD) to allow the use of BISTRO LIGHTS for the following reasons:
    1. Changing the CC&Rs will be costly. We already are facing too many attorneys’ fees.
    2. The black cords for the bistro lights are VERY visible in the daytime.
    3. Variances or changing the CC&Rs can be a very slippery slope. What one person sees as ambiance, another can see as tacky. We had a home nearby that had the bistro lights and black wires strung haphazardly all over their front patio. Thankfully, the CC&R enforcers must have seen them from the road….because now they are gone.

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