February 21, 2006

Outcome for Yerkes remains unclear

After more than four months of deliberation, the University remains undecided on the future of its deed to Yerkes Observatory, said Hank Webber, vice president of Community and Government Affairs, yesterday. Yerkes, a research branch of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, is located in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, and houses the world’s largest refracting telescope.

Although Webber initially expected a decision on Yerkes to be made by “early winter,” he has now given the announcement date at “late winter, early spring,” estimating it at the end of March or early April.

“This has turned out to be a more complicated decision than we originally expected,” Webber said, citing “environmental issues raised, the need to fully analyze them, [and] the decision to ask the department to give extensive input to the future of the Observatory.”

Environmental concerns mainly focus on the designation of more than half of the property’s acres as “primary environmental corridor” by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC).

Because of this designation, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources would not approve sewer extension to any development proposal which would harm the water quality, according to a letter that Philip Evenson, executive director of SEWRPC, sent last month to Ted Parge, vice president for advancement at Aurora University—one of the two current bidders for Yerkes.

Parge said in an interview Friday that the letter, available online through the advocacy group Yerkes 21, was “not an official document” but rather “a kind of review and comment on the proposals.” According to that letter, Parge had asked SEWRPC in December to evaluate the two bids’ development proposals.

While both Aurora and rival bidder Mirbeau, which operates an inn and spa in Skaneateles, New York, propose land development in their respective bids, Evenson contends that Mirbeau’s plan would be ineligible for sewer extension based on its projected area of development.

The second major influence on the decision comes from a report recently submitted to the University’s evaluation committee by the faculty of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. The report, written at Webber’s request, was a study of possible visions for the future of Yerkes, said Angela Olinto, the department’s chairman.

“It’s been very positive,” Olinto said. “We feel the administration is listening to us.”

Webber said the report was “very helpful” and expects that it will be made public in the near future, after clarification questions have been addressed by the department.

The University’s decision has also been delayed in order to press Aurora on its fundraising plan to support the observatory, and Mirbeau on the effect of its proposal on water quality and land use.

Webber said that Aurora responded to its inquiry on January 31 and that he is expecting to hear from Mirbeau later this week.

“Unless there are further clarifications [as a result of] the SWERPC letter,” he said, “it may be possible…we’ll have [enough] to make a decision.”

According to Webber, the University has received between 60 and 100 letters regarding the sale of Yerkes since the announcement of the two competing bids. These letters have come from two main groups: local individuals and members of the national astronomy community. While the majority of letters from local residents supports Aurora’s position, Webber said that some have endorsed Mirbeau.

The town of Williams Bay has not had any public meetings about Yerkes. “Once the University decides, the successful purchaser would come to the Village with their proposal,” said Robert Carlson, Village administrator.

“The local town of Williams Bay controls what happens on that site,” Webber said.

As for the observatory, Yerkes continues “very actively” in education and outreach, said Kyle Cudworth, professor of astronomy and astrophysics and director of Yerkes Observatory.

“A grant has been renewed at a higher figure than initially budgeted, and [there are] other proposals pending,” he said.