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Sedona Dark Skies, Part 3: Sedona City Council Battles Community for Ownership of Highway 89A

Dark sky compliant lighting lluminates State Route 89A, Sedona Arizona.

In March 2010, four new Sedona City Council members and the incumbent mayor were swept into office by what can be accurately described as a landslide. The outcome of the election was driven by dissatisfaction in the community regarding the responsiveness of the previous City Council to the community’s wishes, and the Council’s position on the controversial issue of roadway lighting on Highway 89A. All four of the new Council members as well as the incumbent mayor had signed the “Principles of Public Service,” a document that committed the new Council members to follow the "will of the people."

The new Sedona City Council members and the mayor had accepted financial support and campaign assistance from the organization “Responsive Sedona Leadership 2010,” (RSL) the organization that interviewed all potential candidates and required the selected candidates to sign the “Principles of Public Service.” So, supposedly, a new era would begin with five elected officials working harmoniously yet firmly to follow the “will of the people” and lead Sedona in a new direction.

Dark sky compliant light fixture casts light to the ground, away from the sky.The two key issues that were at the top of the new City Council’s agenda were stopping ADOT from installing roadway lighting, and pursuing federal legislation to have Sedona designated as a National Scenic Area. Both of these issues had been very controversial during the previous City Council’s term, and generally, those in support of or in opposition to the two issues were one in the same. In very general terms, the business community and old guard leadership were in favor of the roadway lighting, and opposed to Sedona being designated as a National Scenic Area, The environmental community, and relative newcomers to Sedona, were opposed to roadway lighting and supportive of the National Scenic Area designation. In order to not confuse the reader, this story will continue to be focused on the roadway lighting controversy. (Note to reader: a separate article will be published at a later date about the controversy surrounding the Red Rock Scenic Area designation.)

As mentioned in part 2 of the story, one of the first actions taken by the new City Council was to pass a resolution strongly opposing the installation of continuous roadway lighting, and if necessary, “to utilize all legal, financial, and political means available to prevent such installation.” The resolution further stated that ADOT should enter into “good faith discussions” to explore the full range of roadway options and jointly develop a plan to address roadway safety that was consistent with community values.

Most everyone in the community agreed that there was a safety issue on Highway 89A in West Sedona. The argument was about the best way to address the issue. The majority of the new City Council believed that the installation of roadway lighting did not truly address the safety issues, because from their perspective, it was both a nighttime and daytime issue, even though all of the fatalities had occurred during the nighttime hours. It was their opinion that installing roadway lighting did not truly fix the problem. Additionally, it was the opinion of some elected officials and members of the community that roadway lighting would do irreparable damage to one of Sedona’s key assets and tourist attractions: its dark skies.

Over the preceding year and prior to their election, some of the new council members and other Sedona citizens attended ADOT Transportation Board meetings, and at times were very critical of the ADOT Board as well as ADOT staff. Some of the animosity and harsh criticism of ADOT had already reared its ugly head at some council meetings in 2014. Comments directed at ADOT officials were at times very emotional and heated, and sprinkled with threats and accusations. This contributed to a very contentious and distrustful relationship between ADOT and the City, because some of those citizens who had been so critical of ADOT were now part of the new City Council.

In May and June of 2010, City of Sedona elected officials and staff met with ADOT staff and members of the State Transportation Board to discuss the status of continuous roadway lighting. The City elected officials again reiterated that the recently-elected council members were opposed to the project, and they urged ADOT officials to set aside the lighting project and work with the new City Council on other pedestrian safety alternatives. ADOT officials clearly expressed their displeasure with the City and what they believed to be very personal attacks and unwarranted criticism of ADOT officials and board members. The chance of any collaboration between the City and ADOT to explore other safety alternatives was a lost cause.

In early July 2010, the Director of ADOT sent a letter to the Mayor laying out the terms of the only option the City had to the installation of roadway lighting. In the letter, the director made it clear that the only way that the installation of the lighting would be put on hold is if the City committed to take ownership of the highway and all of the costs associated with maintaining and improving the road as it passed through West Sedona. This is known as a route transfer, and ADOT had been supportive of turning over portions of State highways to other Arizona cities when the highway would take on more of the characteristics of a local road verses a state highway.
As part of the deal, the Director offered to provide funding to the City sufficient to maintain the roadway for a period of ten years, and to provide a specified amount of funding that could be used by the City for improvements. Additionally, ADOT would overlay the road, install two additional traffic signals and complete other projects identified by staff. The Director gave the City until August 15 to adopt a resolution directing City staff to begin negotiating with ADOT for a route transfer and set a deadline of January 15, 2011 completing the negotiations. If the City does not make a decision by that time, ADOT will continue moving forward with the lighting project.

In response to the ADOT ultimatum, in early August, the City Council approved a resolution directing City staff to begin negotiations for a transfer of ownership of Highway 89A in West Sedona to the City, and to complete the process by January 15, 2011. Additionally, at the same meeting, they authorized the hiring of an engineering firm to study other daytime and nighttime safety alternatives such as medians and pedestrian crossings.
What had been a contentious community controversy quickly grew into a firestorm. Although it was clear that many Sedona citizens were not thrilled about the installation of roadway lighting, taking ownership of the highway and all of its associated costs was a much different issue. Quickly, the cry of fiscal responsibility began to be heard as citizens expressed their concerns about the City Council’s decision to possibly take on what many considered to be a financially risky decision. The business community was very vocal in its opposition to medians and additional major roadway construction projects that, in their minds, would result in many business closures.
In November 2010, with the idea of the City taking ownership of the road becoming increasingly contentious and divisive, the City Council began to think about how it could sell its decision to the community, should it decide to take ownership of the road. They decided that the process for educating the community should occur after the engineering study of safety alternatives and costs was competed, and the negotiations with ADOT were concluded. The City Council authorized up to $20,000 to be spent to complete the public education process. The “educational process” was beginning to look more like an effort by the City Council to convince those in the community who were at best, skeptical about the City owning the highway, to support the concept. The education process was so complex and extensive that the City requested and received a time extension from ADOT to push the deadline from January 15 to the end of February.

The City Council also approved the hiring of a public opinion firm to conduct a statistically valid survey of residents and businesses to measure their opinions about the City taking ownership of the road. The public opinion firm had been in business for over thirty years, and had extensive experience in conducting reliable public opinion surveys. City Council and staff members began reaching out to civic groups and other community organizations with presentations designed to inform audiences about the details of the $15 million route transfer agreement with ADOT and details about the engineering study that identified alternative safety improvements and costs. Public open houses were held to explain the details of the proposed route transfer, and multiple news releases and mailings to residents were part of the educational effort.

The current view at the northern terminus: dark sky compliant lighting along Highway 89A in Sedona, Arizona.

Above: The current view of dark sky compliant lighting along Highway 89A at the Airport Road intersection in Sedona.

The results of the volumes of information generated from the educational processes and surveys were presented to the City Council in early February. The results of the citizen feedback from the presentations, open houses, and listening sessions clearly indicated that the public did not support the City taking ownership of the road. Additionally, the results of the public opinion survey conducted by the professional polling firm also showed that the majority of businesses and residents surveyed were opposed to the city taking ownership of the road.
Members of the City Council who supported the route transfer and were opposed to roadway lighting questioned the validity of the public opinion survey and challenged the firm that conducted the survey about the methodology. They did not believe that the survey truly reflected the views of the community. At a previous meeting, they had requested that an online informal public opinion survey be posted to on the city website to give residents another opportunity provide feedback on the issues. They believed that the online survey would be a better indication of the residents’ position on this issue. The results of the online survey also showed that a majority of residents and businesses were opposed to the city taking ownership of the road. So, the results of all of the different tools used to gather community feedback showed that the community did not support the City taking ownership of the road.

One of the founders of the organization Responsive Sedona Leadership 2010 (RSL) the organization that had supported five of the current Council members during the last election, and had required all five Council members to sign the “Principles of Public Service” pledge, spoke at the meeting. He reminded the five Council members about their pledge to follow the “will of the people” and that it was clear from all of the public input and surveys that residents of Sedona did not want the City to take ownership of the road. He strongly recommended that the City Council pay attention to this and vote accordingly.

In late February, the City Council voted 4-3 to approve the route transfer agreement between the City and ADOT. Three of the five candidates who had signed the Principles of Leadership document, promising to follow the will of the people, voted in favor of the motion. So, even though it was clear that the majority of residents and businesses of Sedona did not want the City to take ownership of the highway, the City Council voted in favor of it anyway.

The City Council members who voted in favor of the route transfer were now faced with the wrath of a community that believed they had not followed the will of the people. It galvanized the citizens to take action that further divided the community and continued the firestorm for another year. Five of the City Council members had been swept into office on a landslide, based in part by the voters’ perception that the previous City Council was ignoring the wishes of the people. Now these five Council members found themselves in the same position as the last City Council—being perceived in the same manner by an angry community.

See Part 4: Dark Skies becomes a victim of the controversy as the community reverses the City Council decision.


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