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Naval Observatory

The dome housing the 61-inch Strand Astrometric Reflector sits at the Naval Observatory on West Route 66 in this file photo. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun)

Would the U.S. Naval Observatory in Flagstaff close up shop if too much ambient light from encroaching development impedes its mission?

Christian Luginbuhl, who has worked for the Naval Observatory in the past, raised just those concerns in a a letter to the Arizona Daily Sun.

"Though I do not speak for the Navy, the clear message to me is this: The Navy will perform its mission. If Flagstaff does not support the Navy, we can expect that the mission will be done, just not here," wrote Luginbuhl, who does not speak for the observatory now. He is familiar with the city's dark sky ordinance, which he helped to draft in the late 1980s.

Luginbuhl told Flagstaff City Council at its meeting on Oct. 21 that the observatory's mission depends on being able to see some of the faintest night sky objects visible. Any increase in light at night could endanger that mission.

The newest source of ambient light near the observatory, Aspen Heights, a 714-bed student housing subdivision, returns to the council's agenda tonight.

Aspen Heights, which is also the name of the company building the project, is asking the city for a rezone of more than 39 acres near the intersection of Woody Mountain Road and Route 66. The project will include 224 single and duplex cottages arranged in a subdivision with 3.6 acres of commercial retail.

The project is located about 3 miles east of the U.S. Naval Observatory on Route 66. Members of the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition and officials from the U.S. Naval Observatory and Lowell Observatory have raised concerns that the light from the project will affect the mission of the observatories.

The land was originally zoned for a rural residential subdivision that would not have the same number of streetlights and other outdoor lighting fixtures that a multifamily/student housing project would have. Outdoor lighting fixtures on homes are also used differently than on apartment complexes. 

Complicating the matter is the fact that Navy personnel at the observatory cannot work directly with Aspen Heights developers because of the Department of Defense’s protocols. Capt. Bill Doster, the commander of the naval air facility in El Centro, Calif., told Council at its meeting on Oct.21 that the Navy typically only negotiates with local officials over issues such as this.

Aspen Heights has hired a lighting expert, Wayne Compton, to create a plan to reduce the amount of light put out by the development once it is finished. Compton said the proposed lighting plan should reduce the amount of light from a 25,000 lumens per acre maximum allowed in the area by city ordinance under the new zoning to around 10,000 per acre.

A lumen is a measure of the amount of visible light given off by a light source. According to the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Information website, a 100-watt incandescent light bulb puts off 1,600 lumens.

Doster said the only copy of the lighting plan he has seen was on the company’s website and he didn’t have enough information to determine the effect on the observatory.

Residents from nearby Presidio in the Pines and Equestrian Estates have raised concerns about noise, traffic and safety issues from the proposed student housing development.

Aspen Heights is working with the Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority to purchase bus passes for all of the students living in the subdivision and to install a regular bus route to and from the development.

The company also plans to participate in the Flagstaff Police Department’s Crime Free Multi-Housing program. Students will also be limited on the number of guests they can have at their home and the security staff at the housing project will keep track of those guests and their vehicles.

Council will discuss Aspen Height’s rezoning request during the 6 p.m. portion of its meeting today at City Hall, 211 W. Aspen Ave.

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Suzanne can be reached at (928) 556-2253.

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Education/Business Reporter

Suzanne writes about education and business. She covers the local school district, charter schools and Northern Arizona University. She also writes the Sunday business features.

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