AP photo byAnnette M. Dowlette|
Astro-photographer Chris Hetlage stands in his telescope viewing structure in Raytown, Ga., in September.
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Georgia astronomy village draws star gazers
By Dorie Turner
Associated Press Writer
SHARON, Ga. — The most important rule at this remote vacation spot is simple: no white light.
Even a sliver of the pupil-contracting rays coming from the window of a cabin at Deerlick Astronomy Village could ruin a neighbor’s view of the Milky Way. The 96-acre village in rural Taliaferro County in eastern Georgia is designed for amateur stargazers looking for total darkness and wide-open spaces to build weekend homes.
“It’s like a lake house for geeks,” said Chris Hetlage, co-founder of the village, as he tromped through the darkness toward his observatory.
Hetlage said he and his business partners figured the development would be popular. There are only two similar communities nationwide — one in Florida and one in Arizona — and he said the demand for dark skies is soaring as suburban sprawl produces more light pollution.
But Hetlage said he was surprised just how quickly the two-acres plots sold.
Star lovers — some as far away as Michigan — have snatched up all of the 17 plots that went on the market less than two years ago.
The business plan aimed for those plots to sell in five years.
The grassy field lined with trees holds six homes and nine observatories, which look like tiny cabins with retractable roofs.
Next to the houses is a 10-acre hilltop observation field where stargazers who don’t want to buy property can pitch a tent and scan the sky for free. The field is the new home of the Atlanta Astronomy Club’s telescope and the 300-member group’s annual stargazing festival, held earlier this month.
“This is going to become one of the premier amateur stargazing sites in the Southeast,” said Tom Crowley, chairman of the club’s board, as he sat at Deerlick on a recent night.
Deerlick property owners are vigilant about white light, which contracts pupils for about half an hour and makes it tough to see anything in the dark.
Homes have only outdoor lights that are a dim red — a color that doesn’t affect the eyes the same way as white light. And windows must be lined with foam board or other light-blocking materials to prevent rays from escaping.
Cars can drive into Deerlick at night, but they can only use their parking lights to roam around.
Star gazers who wander about the property after dark use flashlights with red bulbs.
Five years ago, Hetlage and friend Donovan Conrad began hunting for small plots of land where they could build their personal observatories. The two are amateur astrophotographers who take hundreds of frames with high-powered cameras attached to telescopes and layer them on a computer to create images of galaxies 10,000 light years away.
Finding the perfect spot proved tough, as East Coast cities are so close together that the stars are drowned out by light, Hetlage said. Most of the land far enough from Atlanta’s light pollution was available only in large chunks, so Hetlage and Conrad bought a big chunk to create the astronomy village.
They named the village Deerlick after a cluster of galaxies called the Deer Lick Group.
The first few years, the men and a small group of initial investors spent weekends, holidays and spare time clearing the land for the development, putting in wiring and readying plots for plumbing. Conrad moved his three sons to the development for a year .
The family worked on the land during the day and had home schooling at night.
“I would do anything to come out here,” said 13-year-old Lucas Conrad, who now lives in suburban Atlanta. “It’s my home. I love it out here.”
Dave Lacko, who lives in Taylor, Mich., heard about Deerlick before the land parcels went up for sale and made a down payment even before his plot was ready.
“It’s great people down here, great skies,” said Lacko, who visits his observatory three to four times a year. “It’s just a unique community.”
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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