SJAA Ephemeris October 2006 | SJAA Home | Contents | Previous | Next

A Club Observatory, tale from San Diego

Steven Nelson


The summer of 2003 I took an evening “off” from my vacation to do some “astro business”, like visiting an observatory and talking astronomy! The Board had been discussing 50th year objectives for the SJAA. I was researching the issue by corresponding with other clubs that seem to have successful observing site operations. Here is what I found at the San Diego Astronomical Association’s site through the kind efforts of SDAA Observatory Director Jim Traweek

The ten acre Tierra Del Sol site was purchased about 30 years ago when the SDAA had about 50 members. (Ed. Note: A site plan can be seen at It is about 70 miles East of San Diego and the route can mainly be driven on interstate 15. This site is 10 level acres in an area of short chaparral bush (great horizons). The important site selection points seem to have been, 1 hour driving access, electric lines already in area, dirt road access is limited to the last 1/8 mile, and dark sky. Additionally, the area is near Indian lands with limited development potential. The large site has allowed slow but substantial development over several decades. The ‘one hour access rule’ means it is used monthly for club “public” star parties that are very well attended. Public visiting is encouraged at parties, use requires membership.

The site offers four major services to the SDAA, (1) a developed dark sky site for large star parties (user pads), (2) a 21” equatorially mounted scope (club observatory), (3) an area for about 68 individual small pads and parking (private pads), and (4) a place for six large member observatories (private observatories). The user pads are together in an open field near the restrooms, observatory, and a clubroom. These are available to members on a first-come basis. Two long cement strips for this use have space for back-in parking and all have electric outlets. As the decades have passed there have been increases in members, and the usage and extent of these pads have increased. The observatory is always open and hosted at club functions and an attached club room provides a microwave, hot beverages, and work tables. There is an outside barbeque area. These areas are wheelchair accessed by gently-sloped cement ramps. These spaces provide plenty of room for the large group activities of the club.

The electric service seems important to their site. All telescope sites here have electricity. A well was drilled so the site has a regular water supply. This water, and an electric pump, allowed a restroom building with sinks, flush toilets, and even a modest shower with hot water! I think such amenities (about like a CA state campground) have helped their success over the decades. Large gatherings can use the site without totally roughing it. Females and families are more likely to frequent and use a place with restrooms!

Such a site has been the accumulation of efforts over the decades and generations of club members. Someone designed and installed a leach-field (for sewage disposal) 20 years ago, 5 years ago someone finished off the ‘club room’, and volunteers used rented equipment to clear bush and grade more land. Many people chip in volunteer effort and extra volunteer funds when major capital projects are needed.


The sixty individual pads are small sites with electric service that are available for yearly lease. Serious observing can be done here in relative isolation. Places for about 10-15% of the club are available and the lease about doubles club yearly membership (to about $70). This seems to be one of the major ‘user fee’ sources of income that helps pay annual electricity, taxes and maintenance. Pad “development”, if desired, is the user responsibility. Typically users put in a cement pad and a permanent pier. Occasionally benches and equipment storage cabinets are installed. Some of the initial private pads have been with their ‘owners’ 30 years. The “lease” arrangement allows interest to be retained by the club without ‘license sale’ profiteering. There is a drawing of the observatory grounds at the SDAA web site.

The club observatory seemed undersubscribed. There is no extra charge, but training and a stint as a host docent for one-public-star-party-a-year are the only requirements. This is a facility about the size of the Fremont Peak State Park telescope.

The private observatories area is for those who could afford building a major observatory and help with the original land purchase. These sites are now built-out and the SDAA has planning for new sites. I believe these observatories sell privately, but require SDAA membership and some SDAA overview. The private observatories apparently pay for half the taxes (as a form of ground rent). The concept of ‘ground rent’ is fairly foreign to most Californians, but the situation of houses and businesses on land of Stanford University and Mission College are two local examples.

I think the large site in an easy-to-reach location helped to make this club venture a success. I was very surprised by the large infrastructure and the multiple uses. But space allows both expansion and ‘errors’ in plans. An expansion in ‘private pads’ allowed more members a space (and increased annual fees for the club). Still, about 30% of the site is unused after 30 years. This extra space seems to allow all interest groups and individuals room to grow and to pursue their specialized interests.

There are several ways the costs are contained. The fund for projects seems to grow by donations when there is a lot of interest. Projects taking $5000 and several hundred volunteer hours seem to take place only every few years. It really adds up over the decades! There are now over 500 members in the SDAA and the general dues are $35. Some of this cash is used to support the group area and club observatory. As I mentioned, additional yearly fees are also collected for the private pads and observatories. The observatory web page is at

Coming articles will benchmark the Orange County Astronomers Anza and the Riverside Astronomical Association sites. The SJAA board is now in an active site campaign. The committee has focused on the dark-sky area south of Hollister, and 10-20 usable acres. They still are interested in rural land that might be suitable and available.


Previous | Contents | Next