New Committee Seeks Potential Observing Site Partners

Board Takes “Fee Title” Purchase Option Off the Table

Do you or anyone you know own property in a dark sky area within 45 minutes to 4 hours from Portland that might be willing to “partner” with RCA as a suitable observing site? Do you have any affiliations with public landowners, such as rural schools, city, county, or state parks? If so, we want to hear from you. A standing Observing Site Committee, chaired by Margaret McCrea, has been formed to review sites that come before the Board for acquisition consideration. We’ll be posting a site form on the website to give you an idea of the basic information needs beyond observing suitability.

What Kind of Observing Sites Are We Considering?

In December 2017 the RCA Board made a survey available to members that questioned members’ observing habits, preferences, and wishes. The survey ran until mid-February 2018. We had 159 members respond to one or more of the 18 questions. After months of data crunching and statistical analysis we were able to derive an understanding of our members’ observing needs. Of particular note is that 75% of those responding said that they are satisfied with our existing observing program. When you look more closely at member tenure, overall satisfaction goes down to 57% in the “greater than 8 years” category.

We must be doing something right, but as your Board, we are committed to increasing the satisfaction of our members. The Observing Site Fund Committee Final Report contains the full suite of results from the data analysis, including summary charts and graphs. This report spells out the entire suite of findings and recommendations by a special committee chaired by Dawn Nilson.

Based on survey results and practical considerations, a framework of goals and objectives was developed to guide how the Observing Site Fund will be used moving forward. Three goals encompass the essence of how the fund is to be used. In its simplest form, the goals require that the Site Fund be allocated equitably and cost-effectively, and that the Board remain accountable to the membership in administering the Fund. A suite of objectives were then developed for each goal.

In accordance with the framework, a range of alternatives meeting one or more of the objectives was developed for Board consideration. On closer consideration of the alternatives, the committee made a set of next step recommendations. When looking at all the practical issues involved with site acquisition, it became apparent that there are simpler ways to acquire excellent observing opportunities on our members’ behalf other than purchasing property outright in fee title and in perpetuity. After all, we don’t normally observe 365 days of the year and the fund is currently less than $30,000. Undeveloped, rural land in dark sky areas not too far from Portland generally costs between $2,000 to $5,000 per acre, and rural parcels are generally 20 acres, with only a few sites between 5 and 20 acres. Fee title purchase of one property could quickly exhaust the fund.

Moreover, the survey demonstrated that our members need access — not only to dark skies — but also to water, toilets, electricity, and cell phone signal. Addressing these needs would require investing in site improvements that would necessitate costly environmental and land use permitting. If a site were to be purchased, there would also be costs related to maintenance and insurance. Given that neighboring land uses (such as lighting) may be incompatible in the future, it is risky to invest so much into fee title acquisition. Therefore, the Board adopted the Committee’s recommendation to dismiss fee title purchase from further consideration.

This does not exclude the potential of such an arrangement in the future if land is donated or made available well under market price. But for now, it’s much more practical and cost-effective to be on a path to acquire a site through a land lease agreement (basically a “user” agreement for a per use or annual fee, or ideally pro bono use) or an access easement (purchase specific rights to the land over a specific amount of time). The Board is also considering alternatives of accessing rights to remote telescopes or investing in a fixed observatory. Alternatives are not mutually exclusive. With wise conformance to the framework, the Board may pursue more than one alternative to equitably address member needs.

The Board is excited by all the possibility before us to address the observing needs of RCA members. Thanks for your patience and your help in this process. Clear skies!