Just outside of the D.C. urban sprawl — where for decades the night sky has been illuminated by a dull artificial glow — Sky Meadows State Park has a surprising and rare quality: dark skies. The park, located in Delaplane, has long been a popular spot for stargazers, offering a glimpse of constellations, nebulas and meteors seldom seen with the naked eye in densely populated areas.
Earlier this month, the International Dark Sky Association awarded Sky Meadows International Dark Sky Park status — a distinction held by only 100 parks worldwide. The designation, a culmination of a year-long application process by park staff and a team of dedicated amateur astronomers and volunteers, recognizes the “distinguished quality of starry nights” at Sky Meadows. Kevin Bowman, Sky Meadows Park manager, called the designation a “major milestone.”
With the addition of Sky Meadows, as well as the simultaneously designated Natural Bridge State Park, Virginia now has a total of five dark sky parks— “more than any other state east of the Mississippi,” Virginia State Parks Director Melissa Baker said in a statement.
The International Dark Sky Association is a non-profit that works to preserve the nighttime environment by partnering with parks and promoting quality outdoor lighting.
For Laura Greenleaf, the association’s advisor for Sky Meadows, the designation was something of a personal triumph. “I grew up just a couple of miles from … Sky Meadows,” said Greenleaf, a Paris native, “so [the park] has been a huge part of my life.”
Staff at Sky Meadows began work on the park’s dark sky application in 2016. The process involved strict requirements, including the creation of a lighting management plan, measurements of acceptable levels of light pollution and a commitment to educational programs. The management plan required the park to minimize nighttime light. Measures taken included setting lights on timers, shielding lights or ensuring they cast their beams downward toward the ground rather than up toward the sky. “A lot of staff and volunteer resources went into changing [our] lights,” said Bowman. “It’s been quite an undertaking.”
Recording sufficiently detailed light pollution measurements, known as “sky quality,” proved to be another lengthy part of the process. Dark sky volunteers, many of whom are members of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, spent months recording measurements and taking photographs to prove the park’s eligibility for dark sky status. “We have about 55 people who are cleared to go in at night and observe,” said Woody Davis, one of the club’s trustees. “It just takes time to get all the measurements together.”
Now that Sky Meadows has this designation, part of the program commitment is “making the dark sky available to the public,” said Davis. “Astronomy for Everyone,” a monthly public observation night, has been a feature of the park since the late 1980s. Though currently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the popular program will likely return this May, said Davis, who has coordinated the program since the 1990s.
Geoff Chester, an amateur astronomer, has been observing at Sky Meadows since the mid- 1980s. “It is still a great observing sight,” he said, “but the lights of the D.C. megalopolis and the rapid development of western Loudoun are having an effect. That said, it is still probably the darkest site east of the Blue Ridge that’s easily accessible from D.C.”
Many counties, including Fauquier, employ outdoor lighting ordinances to mitigate the effects of light pollution. But according to Greenleaf, they have not been effective in Virginia and require updating. “[These ordinances] tend to be very permissive, they have vague language … and there is a burden on enforcement that most localities cannot meet.”
Fauquier County’s lighting ordinance – in place since December 2004 -- contains provisions that limit nighttime lighting usage and glare levels in residential areas. It also requires outdoor lighting fixtures to be fully shielded. But lighting associated with roadways, security and a variety of other special conditions—including any lights installed prior to this ordinance—is exempt from this requirement.
The Fauquier County Department of Community Development did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Davis, similarly concerned about light pollution, has suggested appealing directly to neighbors and developers about adopting smarter lighting choices. “There is no upside for anyone sending light up into space,” Davis said. “And I think people are beginning to appreciate how much there is to see in the sky … all the [constellations] you’re never going to see with a lot of background light.”