About 600 acres of land just west of Lowell Observatory has become the center of discussion as Lowell considers future expansions of its campus and development on the mesa.
Officials with Lowell Observatory are seeking an act of Congress that would allow them to better use the area, potentially working with other community partners to develop parts of the property.
But some worry that as Lowell moves forward, the public and Flagstaff residents won’t have a say in the future of Observatory Mesa.
Called Section 17, the area was granted to Percival Lowell in 1910 by the United States Congress, but it came with some restrictions. Namely, the Forest Service reserved the right to log the area, and the land would revert to federal control if either the observatory closed or it was used for anything other than an “observatory purpose.”
But as observatory officials look to the future, Lowell Director Jeff Hall said it is unclear what is considered an “observatory purpose” and they are seeking congressional clarification in the form of a new bill.
During a Flagstaff City Council meeting on the subject earlier this month, Hall said several potential projects have been floated for the area, including an outdoor globe-style theater for the Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival or a new facility to house the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Flagstaff, also known as TGen.
Additionally, it is also possible that the City of Flagstaff could purchase the land if they want it to remain undeveloped. The city already owns more than 2,000 acres on Observatory Mesa that has been set aside as permanent open space.
The property is zoned for rural residential uses but has long been utilized by Flagstaff residents as if it were open space.
During that council meeting, Bob Holmes, who is lobbying on behalf of the observatory in Washington, emphasized the rights Lowell Observatory has to the land.
“[It’s a] misconception that it is open space, it is private land owned by Lowell with federal encumbrances,” Holmes said.
Hall said the observatory is committed to a public process in which Flagstaff residents will be able to weigh in as the observatory creates a master plan for future projects on the mesa.
“We do want it to be a community process. We try to be part of the community and we certainly don't want to be doing anything in a smoke-filled room,” Hall told the Arizona Daily Sun.
Such a master plan may take some time to create with the involvement of community partners, so Hall said it will be years before any shovels hit the dirt.
Still, Hall said they are hoping a bill can pass this year, and Senator Mark Kelly’s recent appointment to the Senate’s natural resources committee may help make that a reality. But he said exactly what that bill might say is unclear and that has raised questions for some in Flagstaff over how much influence the public will really have.
Alicyn Gitlin with the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter said she thinks passing a bill before the development of a master plan sounds like putting the cart before the horse. A master plan would help determine what language the bill should contain, she said.
Gitlin said she worries the language in a bill passed this year would be vague by necessity, which could open the mesa to unpopular kinds of development.
Officials with the observatory have been working with Rep. Tom O’Halleran on the issue for several years. And, although they did not pass, two bills have been introduced in the past.
Those efforts have been conducted largely outside the public’s view, Gitlin said, and the past versions of the bills would have simply eliminated any restrictions on the land.
Nonetheless, those earlier bills did receive some support from past Flagstaff leaders: Former mayor Coral Evans and former city manager Barbara Goodrich both wrote letters from the city in support of the proposed bills.
And Hall acknowledged that it may be difficult to write a bill that defines “observatory purpose” without going through the master planning process.
“Probably, you know, we don't really end up capturing the definition of ‘observatory purpose’ in the bill. It’s probably hasty and short-sighted to try to do that. That definition comes out of the master planning process,” Hall said.
And W. Lowell Putnam, the great-grandnephew of Percival Lowell and the current sole trustee of the observatory, told the council earlier this month the observatory would not want a development that is directly contrary to the mission of the organization, such as keeping dark skies nearby.
“The idea that we're going to go and do some kind of rampant development is just not going to play,” Putnam said.
Gitlin also emphasized that the current federal restrictions on the property mean the public needs to have a say in what happens.
“I think it's really important that they realize that this land, if it's not used for observatory purposes right now, it is supposed to revert back to being public, and therefore the public has a stake. So the public should be allowed to decide if they want to give up that right to reclaim that land if it is not used for observatory purposes,” Gitlin said.
During the meeting earlier this month, the idea was floated that the city council could host the master planning process as a third party without a stake in the outcome.
Hall said he believes one way forward is for the observatory to work with the city in a public-private partnership.
The discussion of Section 17 comes as the observatory is already well on the way toward developing its new $37 million discovery center. That project is adjacent to Section 17, closer to the current observatory campus, and is meant to accommodate growing visitation, Hall said.