Lowell Observatory backs off from seeking change on land use

Lowell Observatory has backed off for now on its hopes to get around a congressional restriction on the use of former Forest Service property granted to the historic observatory over a century ago.

The nonprofit research institution had a modicum of support but also faced reservations and outright opposition from some Flagstaff residents and the City Council. Lowell wanted to lift or ease a congressional restriction on the use of 600 forested acres next to the observatory.

The land on a mesa overlooking downtown Flagstaff would provide Lowell room to grow, but according to the 1910 congressional restriction, could only be used for "observatory purposes," the Arizona Daily Sun reported.

If used for something else, the property would revert back to Forest Service ownership, and observatory officials have said that could lead to the land being auctioned.

Lowell hadn’t specified what it might have in mind for the acreage but potential projects included an outdoor theater for the Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival or a new facility to house the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Flagstaff, the Sun reported in October.

The property, known as Section 17, is laced with social trails and has long been used by Flagstaff residents as informal open space.

Lowell, which is where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930 while using a Lowell telescope, was pursuing new congressional legislation to change the land-use restriction. The observatory said it wanted to simultaneously work with the community to develop a master plan to determine the future of the forested tract.

"It’s going to take time to develop the plan. I think even a year is an incredibly optimistic time scale given the degree of vetting and public participation that is going to be required. Doing the bill and the development agreement right together is not an attempt to ramrod things," said Jeff Hall, Lowell’s director. "They are parts of a whole; one really can’t exist without the other."

But opposition emerged from local groups, including a civic-activist organization and the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, as well as residents of a neighborhood near the observatory. Some said they wanted to see a master plan before Congress altered the land-use restriction.

The City Council voted 5-2 on Nov. 9 against sending Congress a letter of support for legislation.

"We need to tap the brakes, take a deep breath on both sides, we need to be sitting down at a table and hashing this out right. Voting on a letter of support can wait," said Councilmember Austin Aslan.

Both Aslan and Mayor Paul Deasy said they would like to see the development of a master plan before legislation is considered.

After the Nov. 9 meeting, Hall wrote in an email that Lowell would cease pursuing the congressional legislation because it didn’t want to be "at odds with the opinion" of the City Council.

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