Citing deadline and lack of Select Board support, SoVerA pulls astronomical observatory offer

By Cynthia Prairie

In a letter to the Chester Select Board, the Southern Vermont Astronomy Group has withdrawn its offer to donate to Chester, and then operate a publicly accessible astronomical observatory on town land.

The letter, dated March 12, states that in October 2012, SoVerA received initial enthusiastic support from town manager David Pisha, who “insisted … on walking the most likely site and discussing general points of the proposal.” That “most likely site” was at the Pinnacle on Lovers Lane, said SoVerA’s president, Claudio Veliz. SoVerA is a Chester-based 50+ member 501(c)3 that promotes astronomy education throughout the region. Here is a plain text copy of the letter: SoVerA letter to Select Board.

Donated observatory with the roof covering the telescope.

Donated observatory with the roof covering the telescope.

SoVerA members have held classes at Chester-Andover Elementary School and offered solar observation at several public events. Last summer, the organization donated a telescope to the town through the Whiting Library. That instrument can be borrowed for home viewing of the stars. So far, says library director Sharon Tanzer, the telescope has been checked out eight times for one-week usage each, which she considers a lot considering the cold weather.

The March 12th letter continues that the group returned to the Select Board in November with a PowerPoint presentation and a “casual” survey of residents showing support. SoVerA was seeking less than $14,000 from the town to move a small observatory donated by a Walpole resident to public land, and modify it for the site. SoVerA volunteers would then create educational programming and conduct sky observations free of charge.

In December, SoVerA returned to the Select Board bearing promises of donations and pro-bono construction work that cut the cost to the town to slightly more than $7,000 for materials.

Observatory roof slides on rails to open the telescope to the skies.

Observatory roof slides on rails to open the telescope to the skies.

But, according to a DVD of the December meeting, Select Board member Tom Bock said that while he still liked the project, he had trouble funding it while asking the Chester Police Department to cut its budget.

Veliz had said that the project would be a good economic development tool and was already planning to team dovetail with Stellafane, the annual telescope-making and skywatching event that draws amateur and professional scientists from all over the world.

Board member Derek Suursoo, seeming annoyed, responded, “That’s a very clever attempt to leverage economic development on this. When we economically develop the town (the question is) should that be the responsibility of the general taxpayers or the businesses who benefit?” He then suggested that it should be on businesses’ shoulders. He also called the proposal “recreation and luxury services … My knee jerk reaction at this point is to suggest that you look for donors.”

The March 12 letter suggests that the entire board was unwilling to fund the project. However, only Suursoo expressed adamant opposition, saying that it only benefited business but was a cost to the “general tax base” including bringing in more homeowners and a burden of children on the schools. Other members expressed reservations related to money.

Asked about the letter on Friday, Pisha said he “was surprised. The board had said they didn’t want to use town funds but if SoVerA could raise the money, town land would be available.” He added that since it had an educational component, the Select Board would “want the schools involved.”

Speaking Monday, board member Bock said, “I think everyone was supportive of the project. It’s just money issues. Anytime something new gets added, the select board … because of the nature of where the money comes from, the property tax, even if you are for something, you are against it.

“I was under the impression that all we would have to do is in-kind contribution, clear the spot, lay down gravel etc.”

However, during the December meeting, Bock, whose wife is a member of SoVerA, asked for confirmation from Veliz on the cost to the town, saying, “the town’s contribution of $7,000 is on top of our in-kind contribution of site prep…”

SoVerA board member Rick Bates said, “The crux for me is that the town wasn’t going to allow it to go in for quite a while, as I understood. We weren’t going to put it on site immediately. But the gentleman who was donating needed to have it moved.”  Bates was concerned about what he felt was “the diminishing support” of the Select Board.  “This just didn’t sound like a good start. I just wasn’t interested in doing anything that looked like an uphill battle.”

In an interview last week, Veliz said, “A community measures its worth, its strength by the reverence that the community and its leadership (have) for knowledge and education. We think that the Chester leadership still has the chance to demonstrate those values.”

The donated observatory will be moved to a private residence in Gassetts, where SoVerA can use it for its programs. Such an installation is less expensive since there are less stringent code requirements for non-public buildings.  Currently the group is checking with its attorney to discuss liability issues to find out the feasibility of conducting some of the public programs that it had hoped to have in downtown Chester.

While this observatory is off the table, Veliz says that SoVerA, is “leaving the door open to a reconsideration of a similar or even larger project to benefit the town.”

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor for 30 years, having worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Cortney Donohue says:

    I am sad to hear about this. I understand the financial issues, however the opportunity that presents itself to encourage the exposure of our children and residents to a whole new aspect of scientific inquiry is one of high value. As a small town with a vibrant community, we have a responsibility to expose our children to such things. We also have the opportunity to have this program supported by a quality and excited group of individuals whose passion is the mystery of this universe and its intricate amazing-ness! What a bummer……