Sedona Dark Skies, Part 1: Born in Controversy and Raised in a Politically Divided Community

Contributed by Tim Ernster. Posted in Sedona Dark Skies

Milky Way over Elephant Rock in Sedona, Arizona.

In the summer of 2014, after many months of hard work by the Sedona non-profit organization, Keep Sedona Beautiful, and with the assistance of the City of Sedona officials, Sedona, Arizona was awarded the coveted International Dark Sky Association designation as an International Dark Sky Community.  As a result, Sedona is currently one of only eleven dark sky communities in the world.  Surprisingly, there are two other communities in Arizona that have received this recognition: Flagstaff, and the Kaibab Paiute Indian Reservation.

According to information on the International Dark Sky Association website, the dark sky designation is awarded to towns, cities, municipalities, or other legally organized communities that “have shown exceptional dedication to the preservation of the night sky through the implementation and enforcement of quality lighting codes, dark sky education, and citizen support of dark skies.”  Further, according to information on the website, “An International Dark Sky Community excels in its efforts to achieve a community-wide lighting code, promote responsible lighting, dark sky stewardship, and exists as an example to surrounding communities on the possibilities available with the proper lighting.”

Sedona’s path to international dark sky recognition was not without controversy.  Detractors in the community claimed that Sedona was not entitled to the designation due to the fact that a couple years earlier, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) had installed roadway lighting along Sedona’s major thoroughfare, Highway 89A.  The installation of lighting happened after a long and nasty battle that drove a deep wedge in the community, between the old guard business community, and the relative newcomers who have come to Sedona during the last ten years.  The story behind the installation of roadway lighting is inextricably woven into the story of the dark sky designation, and one must understand both stories to appreciate the accomplishment of Sedona achieving the dark sky recognition.

In most communities that I am familiar with, neighborhoods and citizens alike are typically clamoring for more streetlights for safety and security reasons.  It is highly unusual to encounter a situation where the installation of streetlights would meet with so many objections or generate so much controversy.  However, this is Sedona, and no issue is too small or inconsequential to be controversial.  This is not to suggest that the installation of roadway lighting was unimportant.  It was a major decision for a community that survives by tourism and the starlit skies of Sedona are certainly one of its attractions.  So, to understand this controversy, it is necessary to roll back the clock to 2006.  Between 2005 and 2006, there were three pedestrian fatalities on Highway 89A in Sedona, all occurring in the evening within the same stretch of about a mile of Highway 89A.  It was these fatalities and the best solution for improving pedestrian safety that triggered a five-year battle whose scars remain even today.

The pedestrian fatalities prompted the City in 2006 to request ADOT to conduct a study to identify options for improving nighttime safety.  ADOT proposed the installation of continuous roadway lighting on Highway 89A through the western portion of Sedona. ADOT’S justification for the proposal was that that improved lighting would assist drivers to better see the pedestrians, and assist the pedestrians to safely cross the street.

In June 2007, the Sedona City Council unanimously approved moving forward with the lighting design.  However, due to its controversy, the issue of continuous roadway lighting came back to Council later that year for further consideration.  As often happens, when elected officials are faced with a controversial decision, they pass the buck to a “citizens committee” to buy more time.  Shortly after, a citizens committee was formed to review the issue and it was directed to come back to the City Council with recommendations.  

As it turned out, the pedestrian safety issue on Highway 89A became one of the most controversial issues that Sedona has faced since its incorporation as a city in 1988.  On one side of the issue, one faction, buoyed by the business community, saw roadway lighting as an obvious and economical solution to pedestrian safety.  Also, roadway lighting would assist shoppers in finding stores, hotels and restaurants that otherwise might be difficult to locate.  So, roadway lighting would be good for businesses along the highway in west Sedona.  On the other side, relative newcomers and others with environmental and aesthetic concerns believed that there were other, more preferable safety solutions that would be effective in both the daylight and nighttime hours.

In June 2008, the recommendations of the citizens committee were considered by the Sedona City Council. Six short-term recommendations were approved, including a reduction in the speed limit, increased traffic enforcement, education, increased signage, and additional pedestrian studies.  The City Council also approved one of the long-term recommendations of installing a new traffic signal at a troublesome intersection.  The City Council’s decision did not include the installation of roadway lighting, which was far down the list of recommendations presented by the citizens committee.

In August, after much political maneuvering out of the public eye, the City Council reconsidered its June decision regarding the recommendations by the citizens committee.  However, this time around, the City Council approved almost identical committee recommendations, with the exception of one major change: it also voted to direct ADOT to move forward with the installation of dark sky compliant roadway lighting along Highway 89A in western Sedona.  This decision created what can be fairly described as a firestorm in the community, and drove a deep wedge between opposing sides on the City Council that would continue for over three years.  

See additional chapters in the Sedona Dark Skies Series


Article by Tim Ernster for Gateway To Sedona.