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Sedona Dark Skies, Part 4: Dark Skies Becomes a Victim of Controversy as Sedona Citizens Reverse the City Council Decision

Early morning over the Sedona Scenic Byway, SR 179, Sedona, Arizona.


In February 2011, the Sedona City Council voted 4-3 to enter into an agreement with the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) to take ownership of Highway 89A in West Sedona in order to stop ADOT from installing roadway lighting on the highway.

The City Council made this decision out of a belief that there were better safety alternatives than roadway lighting for the highway and that the roadway lighting would interfere with Sedona’s dark skies. This decision was made despite the fact that numerous public meetings, opinion polls, and surveys showed that the public was clearly opposed to this decision. The City Council members who supported taking ownership of the road discredited the results of the opinion polls, public feedback and surveys as not truly reflecting the majority opinion of Sedona residents. The City Council decision triggered a chain of events that would further divide the community and keep it in turmoil for another year.

While City officials began working out the details with ADOT for transferring ownership of the highway, the battle over the lights took a surprising turn. A few weeks after the City Council vote, a new political action committee, “Let the People Vote on 89A (LPV89A),” emerged with the purpose of forcing a special election through the referendum and process so that registered voters could vote on the issue of Sedona taking ownership of the highway. The stated reason for trying to force a vote was because LPV89A did not think that the City could sustain the long-term financial burden of maintaining the road. After some court challenges, the organization began collecting signatures in early March, 2011. This action further exacerbated the divisiveness in the community and drove a deeper wedge between the opposing sides.
In very short order, LPV89A gathered considerably more than the required signatures, and in June, the signatures were certified by the City of Sedona, guaranteeing a November election. The propositions that would face the voters in November were: 1) would future City Councils be required to get permission from the voters before Council could accept ownership of any State highway; and 2) would voters overturn the City Council’s decision to take ownership of the road.

Shortly after the formation of LPV89A, another grassroots community group was formed. The new group, known as “The Voice Of Choice for 89A,” was formed to counter LPV89A and convince the voters to support the transfer of ownership of Highway 89A. The political battle between these two groups raged throughout the spring and summer, and up until the election in November.

As is typical in such politically charged clashes, the two sides made exaggerated claims in an effort to discredit the other side’s position. There were claims by the group in favor of taking ownership of the road that the installation of roadway lighting would destroy the landscaping on both sides of the highway. The group opposed to road ownership claimed that taking ownership of the road would as much as lead to financial ruin for the City. Both sides spent a considerable amount of funds to purchase ads in local media outlets to try to influence public opinion. Many of the ads were often inaccurate and misleading. Personal attacks of members of each group started appearing in online blogs and media outlets.
Dark Skies Sees the Light of Day

The referendum process wasn’t the only outcome from the City Council’s vote to take ownership of the highway. A few weeks after the City Council vote, some of its members who voted in favor of taking ownership of the road requested that City officials and representatives of the Chamber of Commerce form a committee to begin the application process for achieving the coveted designation as an International Dark Sky Community from the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). At the time, there were only three communities in the world that had received the IDA designation. Chamber and City officials assembled a committee that in part consisted of both opponents and supporters of taking ownership of the road, with the idea that possibly the committee’s work would help with the healing process from the previous year of a very contentious and controversial political battle. Other respected community leaders filled the remaining spots on the committee.
The Dark Sky Committee would face a daunting challenge. The application process for achieving recognition as an International Dark Sky Community is very rigorous. It requires a broad cross section of community and business support and also requires that the local community be committed to preserving the dark skies through local outdoor lighting codes and ordinances. The community must show examples of new development projects that have installed dark sky compliant lighting, and provide other proof of steps the community has taken to show its commitment to preserving the dark skies. The application process was estimated to take at least a year to complete before it could even be submitted to the IDA for consideration.

So, while one group pursued international dark sky recognition for Sedona, another group was attempting to overturn the City Council’s decision to take ownership of the highway, and therefore assure that roadway lighting would be installed. ADOT had made it clear that if the referendum to overturn the City Council’s decision to take ownership of the road were successful, it would immediately proceed with the roadway lighting project.

Lights begin at Dry Creek Road and State Route 89A in West Sedona, Arizona.

Above: Dark sky compliant lighting begins at Dry Creek Road and State Route 89A in West Sedona.

During this time as both sides battled each other, the Mayor began to actively oppose taking ownership of the road because of the financial risks to the City in doing so. Although he had been an early supporter of taking ownership of the road to stop the installation of roadway lighting, he had changed his mind in the fall of 2010, and had voted against taking ownership of the road in February, 2011. His change of heart in 2010 had created tension with the Council members who supported taking ownership of the road; his active opposition in 2011 further exacerbated the tension between him and other Council members.

The November 2011 results of the referendum election clearly showed that the overwhelming majority of registered Sedona voters did not want the City to take ownership of the highway. The voters reversed the City Council’s February decision to take ownership of the highway by a margin of 71% to 29%. The voters did approve the other proposition, requiring the City to first get permission of the voters for any future state highway ownerships transfers. As it turns out, the will of the people was very clear, and ultimately the will of the people carried the day.

In December 2011, ADOT began the process of completing the final design of the roadway lighting and other highway improvements that were part of the project, and began construction in the late spring, 2012. The roadway lighting project was completed in the early fall. But, this wasn’t the end of the story.

In January 2012, the Dark Sky Committee provided an update to the City Council regarding its progress in completing the application to the IDA for international dark sky designation. At the time, Committee representatives estimated that the application would be completed by June 2012, and submitted to the IDA for consideration. In March, Chamber and City officials received a letter from the executive director of the IDA that essentially stated in so many words that the community should not even bother to submit the IDA application because the installation of roadway lighting demonstrated that the community was not serious about preserving the dark skies. He indicated that a local group of concerned citizens had contacted him to complain about the installation of roadway lighting and stated that Sedona was not serious about preserving the dark skies.
In response to the letter received from the IDA and complaints of local group of citizens, Chamber, City, and ADOT officials attempted to convince the executive director of the IDA that the roadway lighting met dark sky standards and should not eliminate Sedona from consideration for dark sky designation. The plea fell on deaf ears. Shortly after this, the Dark Sky Committee was disbanded and any attempts to achieve dark sky designation were abandoned.

As it turned out, the local group of concerned citizens that had called the IDA to complain about the roadway lighting included some Council members who had voted in favor of taking ownership of the highway. A year earlier, these same Council members had urged City and Chamber officials to form a committee to pursue dark sky designation. But after being on the losing side of the November 2011 election, their view of the importance dark sky designation for Sedona had changed dramatically.

To be continued, August 11, 2015. Part 5: Sedona captures the elusive International Dark Skies designation.

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