Oil Region Observatory May Relocate to Pinegrove Township

| July 31, 2013

In collaboration with the Commissioners of Venango County, the Oil Region Astronomical Society is exploring the possibility of relocating the Oil Region Astronomical Observatory.

Over the years, many in our community have worked hard and contributed much in the way of funding, labor, and materials to make the observatory possible, and to ensure the facility continues to provide a unique learning opportunity for all.  As ORAS moves forward to consider relocation of the Observatory, the investments made by individuals, businesses, funding agencies, and community groups, which have allowed ORAS to fulfill its mission for more than 20 years, remains paramount in our minds.

In many respects the observatory site for the past 20 years at Two Mile Run County Park is advantageous: particularly because of its close proximity to the population centers in Venango County and the observatory building itself.  Over the years, the Observatory has become an integral part of Venango County and the people it serves.  However, ORAS is in agreement with the County that all parties would be well-served by relocating the observatory to a site in the region better suited to the long-term educational and science mission of the facility. Although the current location within Two Mile Run County Park continues to offer a “pretty good” night sky for this part of the US, we have identified a location with significantly darker sky and relatively good accessibility.

Since its founding, nearly 20 years ago, development in the Franklin-Oil City region and in particular along Rt. 8 has resulted in deterioration of the dark sky conditions at the observatory. There is always a trade-off when it comes to development and attempts to improve economic conditions. Much of the negative impact caused by poor lighting practices can be eliminated with properly shielded lighting, but it’s always a challenge. At the Observatory the sky is less dark than it was 20 years ago: particularly toward the south where the most interesting objects in the night sky are located. And ORAS expects, sky conditions toward the south will continue to deteriorate as (otherwise desirable) home and commercial development increase in the region.

As sky conditions deteriorate it will become more of a challenge for ORAS to conduct basic activities that support its core educational and science mission. Further, expanding recreational activities offered by the County at Two Mile Run County Park increasingly require closer coordination between ORAS and the County. These activities in the region around the Observatory require special consideration because successful operation of the observatory requires careful monitoring of stray light from headlights, flashlights, campfires or any other light source within the Park. The no-lights requirement is a serious restriction that limits use of the Lockwood Field by individuals whose primary interest is not observing the night sky.

Currently the County is required to devote significant resources to ensure the field around the Observatory is mowed, the building itself is maintained, and the lane back to the Observatory is maintained year round. At times, this can place a burden on the limited staff and resources at the Park. So, ORAS understands there is a significant cost benefit to the County in making a move to a site where ORAS will be responsible for all maintenance. In addition, moving the Observatory will free up the region around Lockwood Field.  The County can increase the usage of that part of the Park for overnight activities because the lighting restriction will be alleviated, and the County will have access to a readily available structure to support these increased activities. And in addition, a new dark sky location unencumbered by the multi-use restrictions of the Park will give ORAS an advantage in pursuing grant funding opportunities which favor single-purpose, science-oriented facilities. This will make ORAS more attractive to both serious amateur astronomers, and those newly interested in astronomy, leading to increased participation.

Another issue we hope to address at the current site is that the observing deck at the Observatory can not be made handicap accessibly, and there is a lack of restroom facilities.  A new location will allow for design changes that will increase accessibility and restroom access.  Such modifications will allow more people from the County and surrounding region to participate in activities at the facility.

The best prospect to date for a new location is in Pinegrove Township: approximately 15 min from Oil City, a 20 min drive from Franklin, and a 30 min drive from Clarion.  This will allow the Observatory to better serve the population centers in the region.

The County, ORAS, and the community all benefit by relocation; a darker sky will enhance the educational and observing experience for all visitors. ORAS is grateful for the continued support of its members, friends, businesses, and organizations in the region who have been, and remain, critical to the well being of the Observatory. ORAS looks forward to working with the County to make a new and improved observatory a reality for all.

How might it Work?

Although many details have yet to be resolved, the major points to date are as follows:

  • A property owner has stepped forward to donate a parcel of land to ORAS that is well suited for the project. The individual has stipulations that have not yet been met, and has asked to remain anonymous until details of the arrangement have been finalized.
  • The County would fund the construction of a facility that is comparable to the existing Observatory at the new site.  Once construction is completed, ORAS would move all equipment to the new site and manage the Observatory just as it is managing the current Observatory. ORAS would have sole responsibility for managing and maintaining the new Observatory site.
  • The current lease between the County and ORAS has approximately 21 years remaining.  That lease would be terminated once the Observatory is moved.

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