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Sedona Dark Skies, Part 5: Sedona Captures Elusive International Dark Skies Designation

Sunset at Sedona Airport Overlook, Sedona, Arizona.

In March 2012, the Executive Director of the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) notified the Sedona Dark Skies Committee that any application from Sedona requesting International Dark Sky Designation would not be seriously considered. According to IDA officials, because the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) had installed roadway lighting in West Sedona, it disqualified Sedona from consideration for the International Dark Sky Designation. Although Sedona Chamber of Commerce, City of Sedona, and ADOT officials attempted to change their minds by pointing out that the lighting design complied with IDA standards, it didn’t work. Amid disappointment and frustration, the Dark Skies Committee was disbanded.

After being informed by the IDA that roadway lighting was a deal killer, any hope of achieving the International Dark Sky designation in Sedona seemed remote. However, in the fall of 2012, after the roadway lighting had been installed, many who had been opposed to roadway lighting changed their minds. The roadway lighting did not interfere with star gazing and certainly created a higher level of safety on the highway during the evening hours.

In December 2012, the Mayor of Sedona resurrected the issue of applying for the International Dark Sky designation. The Mayor had spoken to IDA officials and they had encouraged the city to again pursue IDA designation. This was the same Mayor who initially was opposed to roadway lighting and in favor of taking ownership of the highway. He had changed his mind on highway ownership once it was clear to him that Sedona would have been responsible for all of the future maintenance costs for the road. The Mayor did not believe that roadway maintenance costs in the future were a sustainable cost that Sedona would be able to afford.

In early 2013, the Mayor approached the community organization “Keep Sedona Beautiful.” The mission of Keep Sedona Beautiful, Inc. (KSB) is to protect and sustain the unique, scenic beauty and natural environment of the Greater Sedona Area. Its activities range from education and advocacy to hands-on tasks such as picking up litter along the highway. KSB has been an active Sedona organization for 43 years and has over 600 members and 120 volunteers. A proactive and outspoken steward of the natural environment, it had taken the lead on many community issues and initiatives over the years, consistent with its mission.
The Mayor requested KSB representatives to be responsible for a second attempt to submit an application for International Dark Sky designation. The Mayor offered assistance from the City for providing information from the previous application process as well as additional, new information. In the spring of 2013, KSB began working on the application.

The KSB Dark-Sky Committee garnered wide community support from city and county governmental entities, many local organizations, numerous businesses, and hundreds of individual area residents, After extensive documentation by City staff regarding the City’s efforts in controlling light pollution, the comprehensive application to IDA was submitted by KSB in mid-November 2013. After a long, drawn out community battle over roadway lighting, and after being rejected by the IDA over a year earlier, Sedona finally received the elusive and coveted International Dark Sky Community designation in July 2014. At the time, it was only the eighth city in the world to receive this prestigious award.
Given the disagreement between officials within the IDA over awarding the Dark Sky designation to Sedona, the City was held to much higher standards than any previous Dark Sky community. In order to achieve and keep the designation, the City of Sedona had to adopt an International Dark Sky Community Policy and the Lightscape Management Plan. The City council approved both of these documents in June 2014. These documents required the City to consult with KSB in the future prior to any outdoor lighting installations, curfews, or lighting changes on City property.

Shortly after Sedona received International Dark Sky Community designation, it met with its first test. In November 2014, the Sedona Chamber of Commerce was preparing for the Christmas season. It had been searching for a signature event to draw visitors to Sedona during the Christmas season, one of the slowest times of the year for tourism. The Chamber experimented with the concept of a laser light show that projected seasonal images on the red rocks surrounding Uptown Sedona. The experiment was supported by the business community in Uptown and promised to be the signature holiday season event that had eluded Uptown for a number of years.
Representatives of KSB expressed concern about the laser light show because they believed that it violated the spirit of the Sedona International Dark Sky designation. They took a position in opposition to the laser light show. Officials of the IDA also expressed concerns about the proposal, especially right after Sedona had just received the prestigious designation. In light of the concerns expressed by KSB and the IDA, the City recommended to the Chamber of Commerce that it abandon the idea of a red rocks laser light show, and consequently, it did.

This was the first test of the City’s willingness to abide by the high standards that earned Sedona the prestigious award. It demonstrated that Dark Sky communities must live up to the principles of preserving the dark skies, even if it means making other sacrifices.

The road to International Dark Sky designation for Sedona was one filled with controversy and political divisiveness, but in the end, the community accomplished something that only a handful of other communities in the world have achieved. For those groups and individuals in the community embroiled in this and other controversies and political conflicts, one thing is clear: they all believe they are doing it to improve and protect their community. They all may have different beliefs of what is best for Sedona, but the eventual outcomes, whatever they may be, make Sedona a stronger community that truly is driven by the will of the majority.

What will be the next battle? Only time will tell. But one possible issue that is beginning to emerge as the next community controversy is the KSB-led effort to create a Sedona Verde Valley Red Rock National Monument. The purpose of the monument is to help preserve the area’s beauty and protect Native American Southwestern prehistory. Already, opposition is forming to the proposal. Whatever the outcome, Sedona continues to be one of the top tourist destinations in the world.

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