A full moon illuminates the night sky over the Fountain Hills fountain. | Rob Mains / Courtesy of International Dark-Sky Association
Earlier this year, Fountain Hills became the 17th place in the world to be designated an International Dark Sky Community — the result of two years of work from community members. This month, to celebrate the honor, the town is hosting the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Festival on Saturday, April 21.
Joe Bill, a Fountain Hills resident and the co-chair of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association, says his interest in dark-sky communities started a few years ago, when his wife, Nancy, noticed the bright LED lights that were hitting the market. “She read about it, and it’s one of the factors contributing to light pollution. There are many forms of pollution: water pollution, noise pollution, and there’s such a thing as light pollution,” Bill says. “She learned about the International Dark-Sky Association — which is actually based in Tucson — and we started reading about how you can get a community designated as a dark-sky community.”
The Bills started explaining their idea to other Fountain Hills residents, including Ted Blank, co-founder of the Fountain Hills Astronomy Club, who was immediately on board. But the path to the designation required a lot of steps, including getting Fountain Hills' outdoor lighting ordinance changed so it complied with IDA requirements. “After lots of questions and lots of time at the podium, we got unanimous support from our Town Council,” Bill says.
Next came a 100-plus-page application that included letters of support from town organizations. Finally, on January 8, the group received the news: Fountain Hills was officially designated the world's 17th International Dark Sky Community. “After that much effort, it was a high for us, really," Bill says. "We were ecstatic, and it was fun to pass the news on to key leaders in the community that we had achieved our goal. That led to: ‘OK, that’s a big enough achievement that we should plan a festival,’ so that’s what we’re working on now."
The April 21 Dark Sky Festival is scheduled for 3 to 10 p.m. It'll include nationally known speakers and filmmakers, plus a star party — where amateur astronomists from across the Valley set up telescopes for visitors to use. Also planned are art and photography displays, food trucks and a beer garden.
While the star party is happening, astronomers will conduct laser tours of the night skies. “They’ll be talking about both the mythology and the science of the constellations, pointing out those features in the sky with the lasers and talking about what you’re looking at, pointing at planets, galaxies, et cetera," Bill says. "It’s going to be an educational experience for anyone interested in what’s up there.”
The town's museum, library and community garden will also host activities during the festival. The museum will offer live animal displays with owls, raptors and snakes, as well as family discovery stations with crafts. At the community garden, visitors can take tours from master gardeners.
The designation has been positive for the town, Bill says: "It really put Fountain Hills on the map." And even though the town is celebrating its distinction this month, that doesn't mean the association is done working. “We feel that Fountain Hills — on the edge of a metropolitan area, but virtually a dark-sky oasis — has the potential to develop some astrotourism," Bill says. "We think maybe someday we could have a public observatory in town, which would really be a neat experience.”
— Kirsten Kraklio