Foun­tain Hills em­braces views of night skies

The Arizona Republic - - Front Page - Alden Woods Ari­zona Repub­lic USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

Ev­ery year, Joe Bill watched the light draw closer.

He moved to Foun­tain Hills 30 years ago, af­ter half a life spent un­der­neath the speck­led night skies of Min­nesota and ru­ral Wis­con­sin.

Foun­tain Hills felt like the Mid­west. The town was small, but Phoenix was a short drive away. The fa­mous foun­tain was nice to look at. And at night, the dark sky filled with stars and plan­ets.

Then Foun­tain Hills grew. More peo­ple needed more lights. The big city’s edge crept closer. LED lights took over. A dome of light spread over the

Val­ley of the Sun, and Foun­tain Hills’ starry nights started to fade.

“When you move to an area where all of a sud­den the sky glow is in­creas­ing on an an­nual ba­sis,” Bill said, “that starts get­ting your at­ten­tion af­ter a while.”

Ari­zona’s fourth Dark Sky Com­mu­nity

So Bill and his wife, Nancy, de­cided they would try to keep the town dark. They started the Foun­tain Hills Dark Sky As­so­ci­a­tion, speak­ing around town and push­ing poli­cies to stem light pol­lu­tion.

Their cam­paign paid off. The In­ter­na­tional Dark-Sky As­so­ci­a­tion named Foun­tain Hills an of­fi­cial Dark Sky Com­mu­nity on Mon­day, adding it to a list of 17 com­mu­ni­ties across the world that have pledged to stop sky glow’s spread.

It’s the fourth Dark Sky Com­mu­nity in Ari­zona, join­ing Flagstaff, Se­dona and the Vil­lage of Oak Creek.

Foun­tain Hills, which is 30 miles north­east of Phoenix, is the sec­ond near a ma­jor metropoli­tan area. The first was Homer Glen, Illi­nois, out­side Chicago.

“Be­cause the fo­cus with Dark Sky Com­mu­ni­ties is on pub­lic pol­icy and pub­lic out­reach and ed­u­ca­tion, they need not have a dark sky to be­gin with,” said IDA Di­rec­tor of Con­ser­va­tion John Bar­en­tine. “The idea is about chang­ing pub­lic per­cep­tions about light­ing in ur­ban ar­eas and pro­mot­ing not just re­duc­ing light­ing lev­els, but bet­ter-qual­ity light­ing.”

Be­cause light from Phoenix has al­ready leaked over Foun­tain Hills, the town does not qual­ify as a Dark Sky Sanc­tu­ary, the IDA’s la­bel for spa­ces lack­ing light pol­lu­tion. In­stead, the fo­cus of the town’s two-year ap­pli­ca­tion process was on up­dat­ing its ex­ist­ing light­ing.

Sim­ple changes made dif­fer­ence, of­fi­cials say

The Town Coun­cil rewrote its light­ing or­di­nance to en­sure street­lights point straight down and use warm-col­ored bulbs — red, yel­low and or­ange — in­stead of tra­di­tional bright white.

The changes were sim­ple. Foun­tain Hills had few street­lights to be­gin with, and none of the scream­ing tow­ers and bill­boards that brighten Phoenix’s skies. It cost just $23,000 to up­date the town’s pub­lic light­ing.

“We have al­ways been a dark-sky com­mu­nity,” se­nior plan­ner Marissa Moore said. “Now we have a spe­cific des­ig­na­tion.”

That des­ig­na­tion puts Foun­tain Hills at the fore­front of an in­ter­na­tional move­ment.

As cities grow and dark­ness dis­ap­pears, as­tronomers and ac­tivists alike have tried to pro­tect what lit­tle sky re­mains un­touched.

Al­most 80 per­cent of peo­ple in North Amer­ica are un­able to see the Milky Way gal­axy from where they live, ac­cord­ing to a 2016 study pub­lished in Science Ad­vances. The same study es­ti­mated that 99 per­cent of Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans live un­der light-pol­luted skies.

That ex­tra light, re­search says, comes with haz­ards. Bright-white LED bulbs can throw off an­i­mal be­hav­ior and hu­man sleep pat­terns. Sprawl­ing street­lights can make prop­erty and pedes­tri­ans vis­i­ble to po­ten­tial crim­i­nals. Un­nec­es­sary light wastes elec­tric­ity that costs money.

And in Ari­zona, the spread of light pol­lu­tion could harm the state’s space and astro-tourism in­dus­try, which a 2008 study by the Univer­sity of Ari­zona found brings in more than $250 mil­lion a year.

Joe Bill sees Foun­tain Hills carv­ing out its own place in that field. He’s stud­ied the re­sorts that of­fer tele­scopes on ev­ery bal­cony and the restau­rants that cre­ated space-spe­cific menus: Gal­axy Desserts and Starry Night Mar­gar­i­tas.

“There might be po­ten­tial for Foun­tain Hills to do that,” Bill said.

The town will first at­tempt to pro­mote its new des­ig­na­tion with the Dark Sky Festival in April. Sci­en­tists will speak, craft beer will flow, and a string of tele­scopes will show off the dark skies.


Ari­zona has long been a des­ti­na­tion for as­tronomers to take ad­van­tage of the state’s dark skies.

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