I pledge devotion to the stars of the majestic Milky Way Galaxy and to a dark night sky in which they shine; one cosmos, overhead, clearly visible, with liberty from light and dark skies for all.
-- Jack Troeger,
Dark Sky Initiative
In 2001, Florida developer and
amateur astronomer Gene Turner came to southeastern Arizona in
search of “the new frontier.” He found it in a sky
darker than any he had ever seen. Inspired, he promptly bought up
450 acres near the town of Portal to create an “astronomy
Six years later, all 85 parcels in the
Arizona Sky Village have been purchased, and many now boast custom
homes with observatories. Construction is underway on 11
“interval ownership haciendas,” or time-share homes,
complete with 14-inch computerized telescopes located in private
open-air observation courtyards.
communities have covenants, but the rules of the Arizona Sky
Village reflect its unusual purpose: Curtains must be
light-blocking, so that no light leaks out at night and only low
wattage-bulbs “with full cut-off” (meaning that no
light goes up) can be used outside at night.
Turner, the success of his venture stems from the first thing he
did after seeing the property: He got on the phone with his friend
Jack Newton, astrophotographer extraordinaire, whose images of the
night sky have appeared in such prestigious publications as
Astronomy Magazine, the German magazine
Sterne und Weltraum and National
Newton and his wife, Alice, had
already started an astronomy community in Chiefland, Fla.– a
village of stargazers that just “happened” because the
Newtons were there with their telescopes. In fact, that’s how
Turner met them in the first place; he was the second person to
come to their door at Chiefland, eager to join the community.
From Arizona, Turner called Newton and said, “Jack,
you’re in the wrong place.”
His rave about
Portal convinced Newton to buy in. “It’s an
extraordinary place, the location is second to none,” Turner
rhapsodizes. “You’ve got 10,000-foot mountains coming
down to desert, five of seven life zones, ponderosa to cactus.
You’ve got the mountains blocking Tucson and Sierra Vista,
you’ve got an extremely dry climate with no light
domes.” (Water vapor reflects and disperses light.)
With Newton on board, Turner sold the rest of the parcels quickly.
“It’s kinda like a golf course,” Turner says.
“You get the right pro, in this case an astronomy pro, and
people come to rub shoulders with him.”
who have bought property are “mostly biologists, retired
writers and poets” between 50 and 70 years of age, according
to Turner – many with an interest in horseback riding and
bird-watching, and all with an enthusiasm for astronomy.
Turner’s own love for the night sky stems from the 1960s, the
moon race and Carl Sagan’s books: “He presented space
passionately, more emotionally, a little spiritual, less
scientific. It touches something inside, looking at other galaxies
up close and personal.”
At Arizona Sky Village, the
stars do seem closer. The less the magnitude, the brighter the
star, and at the village the less-bright stars -- those of the 7th
magnitude -- are visible to the naked eye. With telescopes (ranging
from 14 to 30 inches) you can get spectacular glimpses of such
faraway beauties as the Orion Nebula. Some part-time residents
– like the Newtons, who live six months of the year in Canada
at their astronomy-themed bed and breakfast – keep any eye on
Portal’s skies via computer-controlled cameras.
Just a few issues worry Turner, who insists he’s never
leaving southeastern Arizona. There’s the lack of medical
facilities, for one – with all its older residents, Portal
could use a clinic with good cardiac care. Another issue –
the relationship of the village with the neighboring community
– seems to be resolving itself. “At first, there was
quite a bit of anxiety over this ‘quote development
unquote,’ ” says Turner. “I took quite a bit of
heat. But I think now the community loves the people we have here.
We sign up as EMTs, for example. Well… they probably still
don’t like me, because land values went up about a thousand
“We got lucky -- we got here first
to preserve this dark sky.”