Turn Out the Lights for Starry Nights


There’s something peaceful about walking out in a garden at midnight. We had a precious 15-year-old Dachshund named Lily who recently passed. In her senior years, she frequently needed to go outside, and, since we live in coyote country, those late-night sojourns required supervision. As bothersome as it was, I loved that moment when I stepped out in the cold and could smell the heady fragrance of the lemony eucalyptus and citrus. As Lily looked for the perfect place to squat, I would gaze at the sky and try to guess whether the moon was waxing or waning in the quiet starry night. 

Looking across our canyon, I saw houses that seemed to be more lit than I remembered. Tree-lined driveways that I never saw before, porch lights from a half-mile away, and illuminated shrubs. What happened? And when? Was it new enthusiasm for home renovation during the lockdown? Maybe design inspiration from an enthusiastic neighbor? Or maybe they found out about a little-known 1990s exception in the lighting regs that made an allowance for “low-voltage” uplights. Whatever the reason, the Covenant’s night sky is changing.

Less than 100 years ago, everyone around the world could look up and see a spectacular starry night sky. It’s said that Vincent Van Gogh painted his infamous “The Starry Night” while in Saint Remy, France. Sadly, Saint Remy and millions of cities around the world have lost their night sky due to the widespread use of artificial light. Excessive use of artificial light has even been proven to have serious consequences on the health of humans and wildlife. 

An Essential Element

Rancho Santa Fe is one of several dark sky communities situated in the middle of a larger consortium. The San Dieguito Community Plan Area includes RSF and stretches west to Sun Valley, north to Elfin Forest, east to Del Dios, 4S Ranch and Rancho Bernardo, and south to Fairbanks Ranch. The San Dieguito plan has their own dark sky goal calling it “an essential element that contributes to the rural character of the San Dieguito area.” They greatly value the nighttime silhouettes which are possible because the night sky is still relatively free from light pollution. 

The San Dieguito Plan’s dark sky policies are fairly simple and straightforward.

  1. Outdoor lighting must be directed downward and screened so as not to be visible from the street or adjoining properties. 
  2. Street lighting (if allowed) must be low-level, timed and screened.
  3. Commercial lighting shall be subdued and time restricted.
  4. Exterior sports facilities (public and private) cannot be lit.

Within the San Dieguito area, many HOAs have taken the authority to impose additional rules to protect the night sky. (Although Fairbanks Ranch seems to have reduced their restrictions like a parent raising the last of their six children.) In the Covenant, the Art Jury follows two documents which provide homeowners another layer of protection to “minimize lighting nuisance and preserve the Covenant’s dark skies.” We look to the Residential Design Guidelines which is the convenient hand-illustrated “this-not-that” book, and The Exterior Lighting Regulation (Chapter 14) of the RSFA Regulatory Code. The lighting regulations were first approved by the Association Board in 1994. As lighting technology and new compliance issues arose, the code was amended in 1996, 1998 and most recently last December. 

During the last 20 years, the California government has regulated the use of incandescent bulbs pushing consumers to a more energy-efficient bulb. When I was a student at the Design Institute, I had an instructor who told us, “You better make friends with compact fluorescent lighting because it’s here to stay.” The thought of all our homes being fitted with cold, blue-tinted curlicue bulbs made me shudder. Who wants to live in the silent vibrational buzz of fluorescent lights like a scene out of the movie Office Space? 

Thankfully, lighting technology has improved and products are continually being introduced to the design market. But with them came new levels of brightness, weird colors and the vernacular to go with it. It’s no longer just watts, but also lumens. Plus we need to consider the Kelvin range which measures how warm or cool the light. Sound overwhelming? That’s where the Art Jury can help.

For instance, we carefully ensure each exterior fixture’s lumen output is appropriate as well as limiting the number of exterior light fixtures. We discourage excessive use of pathway lighting — especially along a driveway so it doesn’t resemble an airstrip. Lighting plans also will have a calculated total lumen count based on lot size and location. Does it sound excessive? Not when it’s done well. A good lighting plan shows restraint and doesn’t feel overwhelming to the eye. It doesn’t yell, “I just spent tens of thousands of dollars on this landscaping and I want to see it at night.” Most importantly, good exterior lighting doesn’t fight with the dark sky or project light to the neighbors.

Light Trespassing

Minimizing lighting nuisances is not just limited to landscaping. For instance, if a house is situated on a bluff with large swaths of view-facing glass, light will spill out the windows and doors interrupting the hilltop silhouettes. This is called “light trespassing” and can be minimized by deep porches and/or less glazing. Even outdoor chandeliers can have the same noxious effect depending on the site, if the fixture is unshielded or has too many lumens. 

Dark-sky communities are a wonderful thing. It’s the reason so many city dwellers escape to nearby desert communities like Joshua Tree or Borrego Springs. In fact, they are two of only four places in California recognized by the International Dark-Sky Association, which includes Julian and Death Valley National Park. Other recognized communities are Ketchum, ID, Sedona, AZ, and Dripping Springs, TX. 

I wonder if Rancho Santa Fe could someday be officially recognized by the ISDA as a dark-sky community? One could argue the Covenant’s lighting regulations are almost there. By outlining good outdoor lighting policies and educating our neighbors on the importance of dark skies, maybe Rancho Santa Fe could be an International Dark-Sky place. But only if we can hold on to our dark skies goals, re-think some ill-conceived regulations, and, most importantly, not fall victim to a “rules-for-thee-not-for-me” ethos.

Star Gazing

One thing I know: There are a lot of opinions around this subject, but very few experts. When asked, almost no one in the Ranch — including our Board of Directors — can define what dark skies even mean. And after reading past RSF Post articles and forum comments, neither do our residents. Many didn’t even realize Rancho Santa Fe was a dark-sky community and has been for 100 years. The Covenant has had formally written dark-sky policies since the early nineties, yet recent discussions around these policies make members think they are something new and have stoked fear about them. Some are worried they can’t leave on a porch light and their teenager won’t be able to find the front door at night. Others are convinced burglar-preventing security lights will be banned, or that Eric from Enforcement will show up and start removing light bulbs. 

Keeping ourselves and our property safe from theft and vandalism is a major priority. However, too much lighting can have the opposite effect. Badly designed outdoor lighting can actually make us less safe because bright and poorly aimed lights can hide danger. Real security depends on the wise use of lighting where visibility is the goal. Instead of more and brighter lights, we need smart lighting that directs light down where it is most useful. In a recent forum, our own sheriff said having a dog is one of the best deterrents for criminal activity.

So what is a dark-sky policy? According to the International Dark-Sky Association and all the communities who embrace it, a dark-sky policy consists of the following basics:

  • Only be on when needed (Time limits on security and landscaping lights)
  • Only light the area that needs it (Limit number of fixtures)
  • Be no brighter than necessary (Limit lumens)
  • Minimize blue light emissions (Have warmer bulbs under 3,000 Kelvin)
  • Eliminate upward-directed light (Light must not emanate above the horizontal plane of its shield. See graphic below)

Whether we consciously know it or not, one of the many reasons that drew us to Rancho Santa Fe is its dark skies. We may not appreciate it now, but would certainly notice if they’re gone. What’s more, other communities are realizing their value as the effects of new lighting technologies are taking a toll. In fact, entire organizations like the International Dark-Sky Association (IDSA) have been formed to help HOAs navigate their own lighting regulations making sure homeowners safety needs are protected without marring the nighttime sky. Maybe it’s time to call in some level-headed experts on the subject to add some clarity and assuage the members.

It’s been a few months since our sweet little Dachshund Lily left us, and about as long since I ventured into the garden late at night. I remembered how I used to envy the neighbors who I imagined were slumbering peacefully while I was on midnight puppy patrol, but now I miss it. I need to remind myself to take a pause and walk outside in the evenings to gaze at the stars … grateful that we live in one of the most beautiful, peaceful and dark places in the world. If we can keep it.

This graphic above from the Residential Design Guidelines shows the difference between a lighting plan that works toward preserving our dark skies and one that doesn’t. 

Before and during the 2003 Northeast Blackout. Photo by Todd Carlson (International Dark-Sky Association).

Cathedral Rock in Sedona, AZ (International Dark-Sky Association).

An excessive number of light fixtures and high lumen output can mar the night sky.

International Dark-Sky Association guidelines and original RSFA Lighting regulations restrict directing light upwards into the sky. Uplighting is never allowed in dark-sky communities, and you won’t find any when shopping in the dark-sky section of lighting manufacturers. 

Excessive glazing and lack of porch overhangs can result in “light trespassing” — a hindrance for dark skies and a nuisance to neighbors. This is why the Art Jury pays close attention to architectural elements like windows, doors, and covered porches.

Ms. Hillard is an Association member and Secretary of the Art Jury.