The Wagman Observatory likes the dark. It needs it.
That's why, when Pittsburgh astronomers were looking for a site suited for stargazing nearly 30 years ago, they chose a hill in Deer Lakes Park, a place they believed was far enough from light sources to provide a clear view of the night sky.
It's also why, after Allegheny County announced it was interested in pursuing a deal to drill for natural gas beneath Deer Lakes Park, some expressed worry that light pollution from drilling operations could spoil Wagman's view of the stars.
But Tom Reiland, founder and director of the Nicholas E. Wagman Observatory, is not only unconcerned, he's also supportive of the plan, particularly because the county plans to devote some of the revenue from the deal toward improvements in the nine county parks.
"This isn't going to hurt us," Mr. Reiland said. "In the long run, it's going to help us."
Mr. Reiland, who lives in Shaler, knows stars. A longtime astronomer, he worked for the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh's Riverview Park on the North Side, has an asteroid named in his honor and has discovered a starcluster and a supernova.
The Wagman Observatory opened in 1987 in Deer Lakes Park, a 1,180-acre expanse of county-owned land, at the top of a hill that Mr. Reiland said was a spot "perfect for astronomy."
The observatory, which leases the space from the county and is owned and operated by the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh, has telescopes the public can use, as well as space for people to use their own telescopes. Mr. Reiland estimated that they've had at least 58,000 visitors since the observatory opened 27 years ago.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald was one of them, attending what is a regular event at Wagman, the "star party."
He's met with representatives of Wagman "a handful of times" to discuss the gas drilling plan, said Bill Yorkshire, a Plum resident who has been a member of the AAAP since 1969.
"He's been working very closely with us. We've been in from the get-go with this whole thing," said Mr. Yorkshire, who said he is in favor of the county's plan.
Mr. Fitzgerald unveiled the Deer Lakes gas drilling plan at a news conference March 17. The proposed lease with Range Resources and Huntley & Huntley would allow for gas drilling beneath, though not on the surface, of Deer Lakes Park.
The deal, which still requires approval by County Council, would yield 18 percent royalties, a $4.7 million bonus payment, plus $3 million toward parks improvements, which for Deer Lakes Park could include better roads, parking and rest room facilities, Wagman staff said. "As we look at it, it's a boon for the park and the county," Mr. Reiland said.
Mr. Fitzgerald, in describing the terms of the lease earlier this month, said special consideration had been made to avoid interfering with stargazing at Wagman.
"The Wagman Observatory is one of those great regional assets that make our community special and that people enjoy," Mr. Fitzgerald said in an interview last week, adding that part of the discussions with Range included avoiding interference with Wagman's activities.
The gas drilling lease itself, which was posted to Allegheny County's website Thursday, calls for measures to reduce night lighting pollution, including using drilling rigs with "fully shielded lighting" and for lighting at the drill site and operation site to be directed downward and shielded.
It also states: "Lessee shall coordinate as necessary with authorized representatives of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh (the 'AAAP') to endeavor to minimize the impact of lighting on star parties."
Star parties are held at the Wagman Observatory about once a month, with the next one scheduled for next weekend.
In recent years, Wagman officials have talked to other developers in the area, such as the Pittsburgh Mills Mall, about steps they can take to minimize light pollution, such as designing parking lot lights that direct the light down, rather than out, Mr. Yorkshire said.
Mr. Reiland said the light pollution from drilling operations "doesn't last too long."
But the planned drilling lease concerns others.
Joy Strang, a Frazer resident who spoke at a recent county council meeting against the drilling plans, said she goes to Wagman with her 8- and 7-year-old daughters "as often as we can."
"The effects of having a drilling operation going on there itself, there would be light."
She said she plans to attend a meeting Mr. Fitzgerald will hold at Deer Lakes High School at 7 p.m. Wednesday about the gas drilling plan.
Mr. Yorkshire said Wagman Observatory takes seriously its commitment to providing stargazing opportunities to the public.
"We don't want to give up the night skies, and we certainly aren't," he said.
Kaitlynn Riely: firstname.lastname@example.org.