If earlier proposals were met with vigorous objections from the community, you might breathe a sigh of relief. Last night's information session was attended by just one person: this reporter.
UNCA officials and Astronomy Club of Asheville representatives called the meeting to offer details and take questions from the community as they develop plans to construct a low-profile, 1,300-square-foot, star-gazing lab on a 0.07-acre wooded hilltop property on the north side of campus.
Earlier this month, UNCA announced its plan to partner with the Astronomy Club on the site, accessed via Lookout Road at the end of Nut Hill Road. In the 1990s, UNCA proposed building a conference center there. At that time, neighbors worried about increased traffic, light pollution and related concerns that were anticipated to accompany the development of a public conference center.
"That project was a dramatically different idea from this one," says Dr. Keith Krumpe, UNCA dean of natural sciences. "That project would have had a noticeable impact on the neighborhood; it would have required a more open access." In contrast, says Krumpe, this building will be positioned off the ridge top and at the dead end of Nut Hill Road. No additional pavement will be added, he reports, save for a small turnaround required for emergency vehicles. The low-impact nature of the project also includes minimal lighting, composting toilets and keeping as many of the trees on the site as possible.
Astronomy Club President Bernie Arghiere, an advocate for dark skies over Buncombe generally, conceived of the project in 2003. "You want as dark and quiet a location as you can find," he says. Arghiere attended the meeting to take questions.
An observatory was originally planned by the Astronomy Club as part of a proposed science center at a new Health Adventure, once slated for a vacant property along Broadway near the university. But when the Health Adventure plans fell through last year, Arghiere says, the club took its proposal to the university.
Krumpe adds that UNCA's Physics Department offers an astronomy minor, and its astronomy courses are popular with general science students. But the program lacks an observatory. So the proposal was warmly received, says Krumpe, and the Board of Trustees gave their approval in December to accept the gift of the building, funded by the Astronomy Club. Asheville architects Padget & Freeman developed the building concept, approved in March.
At the April 19 meeting, detailed construction plans were on display.
Plans call for a one-story oblong building with two major rooms: a heated meeting room that holds up to 24 people and an unheated observatory with a custom-built roof that rolls back to allow star gazers an unoccluded view of a large arc of the night sky. An outdoor patio will offer additional space suitable for portable telescopes. The site faces south, with a dramatic view of downtown Asheville and the mountains beyond.
Both the university and Astronomy Club will bring telescopic equipment to the new star-gazing lab, including two 14-inch telescopes, a high-quality optical refractor and numerous smaller portable telescopes.
Krumpe says he's thrilled with the prospect of new programs and partnerships that are expected to evolve surrounding the new star lab, which project leaders view as an important new educational resource for the community. "One of the groups I'm passionate about targeting is elementary school teachers," he says, adding that the university and community partners plan to seek grants and other support for programming directed at school-aged children that can be offered at the star-gazing lab.
"Thanks to the generosity of the Astronomy Club of Asheville, we'll have the building, and it really becomes a true collaboration and a shared facility."