Documented by Artemes Gidram
What happened: In a 7-1 vote, the Fresno County Planning Commission approved the expansion of a remote observatory seven miles east of Auberry at its Thursday meeting.
The approval allows Sierra Remote Observatories to add a break room and additional observatory buildings that will house telescopes, which professional and amateur stargazers operate remotely via the internet.
Tucked off of Bald Mountain Road south of Auberry Road, the operation is on a nearly 5-acre parcel, and currently includes 12 observatory buildings that house telescopes used by university astronomers, space industry professionals and astrophotographers, according to its website.
Architect Linda Dineen spoke on behalf of the observatory and said its clients also include several governments, NASA, the Department of Defense and universities. She said the site has a waiting list of agencies and entities wishing to place a telescope there because the viewing conditions are excellent.
“It has dark skies, there are a high number of clear nights in the year for viewing and there’s very little wind and almost no thunderstorms,” she said. “So this provides the best viewing of this kind in the United States. Who knew, right? And it’s in our backyard.”
Commissioner Lisa Woolf asked what all the different entities were viewing and expressed concerns that they weren’t sharing information.
Dineen said that universities are looking at extrasolar planets, black holes, or supernova; businesses such as the Department of Defense are tracking satellites or near-Earth objects; NASA is also watching for near-Earth objects and looking at fainter objects to predict what they’re doing.
Owner Keith Quattrocchi said there are five or six similar sites in the United States, but none of them have comparable views. Other, similar sites are in Chile and Africa.
Neighboring resident Charles Miller expressed concerns about ongoing construction at the facility, which he said has been occurring for eight years.
Woolf was the sole vote against the expansion, which was scaled back to include fewer observatory buildings after she expressed concerns about them being located in an area zoned for rural residential and being visible from Highway 168.
“I just don’t know why we’re growing this, this into a big parking lot of industrial buildings that you’re going to be able to see from a long way away,” she said.
The initial request was to add 13 observatory buildings and it was changed to allow four new buildings and dome observatories.
According to its website, the observatory was founded in 2007 and its location in the Sierra Nevada Mountains was chosen because of a combination of infrastructure accessibility and weather conditions, which include “290 clear days per year, dark skies, average wind speeds of only 1 mph, no summer monsoons, and only rare thunderstorms.”
Up next: The Fresno County Planning Commission is scheduled to meet again on Sept. 14.