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Astronomers applaud Brewer veto of electronic billboard measure

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PHOENIX – Gov. Jan Brewer’s veto of a bill that would have allowed electronic billboards along state highways and interstates will help preserve world–class astronomy in Arizona, a group of astronomers said Thursday.

“Every observatory in the state realized the importance of this and unified against it,” said Jeff Hall, director of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

Hall and Lori Allen, deputy director of Kitt Peak National Observatory outside Tucson, were among the astronomers joining Rep. Steve Farley and Sen. Olivia Cajero Bedford, both Democrats from Tucson, at a news conference outside the State Capitol.

The group objected to legislation by Rep. Bob Robson, R–Chandler, that they said would have allowed the illuminated billboards into areas that could spoil the dark skies observatories need.

“I would like to thank Governor Brewer for recognizing the value of astronomy to the economy of Arizona,” Allen said.

In a letter explaining her veto of HB 2757, Brewer noted that more than 3,300 jobs are tied to astronomy and that the industry has an annual economic impact of $250 million. She suggested that stakeholders reach a compromise that helps the billboard industry while protecting observatories.

Hall said the bill would hurt the Lowell Observatory’s chances of luring the $130 million Cherenkov Telescope Array to northern Arizona. The other possible sites are in countries – Spain, China and Mexico – that have made strong commitments to protecting their skies’ darkness for the next 50 years, he said.

Farley said the governor’s veto sends a message to the rest of the world that Arizona is going to protect the darkness that makes it unique.

“Every once in awhile good arguments and common sense win,” he said.

Farley said he helped propose an amendment to the bill that would have established a 75-mile buffer zone around observatories but that the billboard industry was against that idea.

Robert Johnson, a spokesman for CBS Outdoor, said in a telephone interview that electronic billboards have only a minimal impact on darkness and that the industry will seek a compromise.

“We’re looking at what can be done to solve this … so neither industry is hurt,” Johnson said.

Robson, the bill’s sponsor, said he thinks that he, billboard industry and observatories can strike a compromise and revive the measure this session.

“The bill deals with an antiquated policy and we wanted to fix that,” he said. “I don’t want to see the astronomy industry go.”