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A Victory for Dark Skies.

The observatories atop Arizona's Mount Hopkins have won a major battle against light pollution. A real-estate developer had sought to change the zoning in an area near the mountain, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Tucson, to permit construction of 6,100 homes, more than four times the number allowed under current regulations. Even with strict light-pollution controls the proposed development, known as Canoa Ranch, would have brightened the night sky to an alarming degree, according to astronomers at the Fred L. Whipple Observatory, which shares the mountain with numerous other institutions. Local officials decided against the rezoning, but only after an ugly fight between astronomers and builders.

Last December 23rd a lawyer for Fairfield Homes wrote to astronomers at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and U.S. Naval Observatory stating, "If we do not receive a letter retracting your entities' opposition . . . we have been instructed by our clients to take appropriate legal action against you and the entities you represent." The letter urged the scientists to "take your heads out of the sand and recognize the reality that development will inevitably occur in the vicinity of Mount Hopkins." Fairfield Homes also threatened a lawsuit for $900 million, the value of the Canoa Ranch project.

The Board of Supervisors for Pima County, where Tucson is located, scheduled a hearing on the rezoning for January 12th. On the 6th University of Arizona astronomer Mark V. Sykes posted a petition on the World Wide Web asking astronomers to support the right of their Tucson colleagues to provide scientific information to their government representatives, to support their efforts to ensure the future of astronomy in southern Arizona, and to condemn attempts to silence them through intimidation. The next day Sky & Telescope posted an alert on its Web site, and on the 9th the American Astronomical Society e-mailed a call for help to its members. By the time Sykes presented his petition to the supervisors, it contained the signatures of 214 local astronomers in addition to 2,240 more from 44 states and 29 countries. Sykes also collected 80 letters.

The developer bused construction workers and contractors to the hearing, while concerned astronomers were joined by slow-growth advocates, local residents, and archaeologists. Craig B. Foltz, director of the Multiple Mirror Telescope Observatory on Mount Hopkins, delivered an impassioned speech in support of dark skies. After a raucous and contentious debate, the supervisors voted 4 to 1 against rezoning Canoa Ranch, citing the need to preserve the area's observatories and associated optics companies.

"This is the first time in 25 years that the Pima County Board of Supervisors has turned down a rezoning request from a developer for such a major project," says Sykes. "The huge response of the astronomical community around the world to our petition, as well as the numerous letters received from our colleagues and friends, played a significant role in convincing the board that their decision would have more than just a local impact - it would have an international impact as well."

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Title Annotation:Arizona's Mount Hopkins
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U8AZ
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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