Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The ugly battle over the David Dunlap Observatory

Sometimes the real story is in what isn’t being said, like the April 15, 2015, press release from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Toronto Centre (RASC). They announced that Corsica Development was donating the David Dunlap Observatory (DDO) to them. Corsica, a subsidiary of Metrus Development, is the current owner of the land.

What the press release doesn’t mention is the conflict, the mudslinging, the pressure tactics, or the broken relationships over DDO.

The David Dunlap Observatory opened in 1935 in Richmond Hill, Ontario, a town just north of Toronto. David Dunlap, a mining executive, wanted to endow the University of Toronto (U of T) to build a new observatory. After Mr. Dunlap died in 1924 his widow, Jessie, went ahead with the endowment.

The observatory houses a 1.9-metre (74-inch) reflecting telescope, at that time the largest in Canada and second largest in the world.

Astronomers did groundbreaking work at DDO. Helen Sawyer Hogg publishing a major catalogue of variable stars and globular clusters. Sidney van den Bergh expanded the David Dunlap Observatory Catalogue, a database of dwarf galaxies. Tom Bolton was one of first astronomers to find evidence of black holes.

Over time newer facilities surpassed the observatory, and local development closed in around it. The university announced in 2007 that they would close DDO and put the property up for sale.

That’s when the simmering conflict over the future of DDO boiled over.

As outlined in the Globe and Mail, From stargazing to navel-gazing: Astronomers feud over historic observatory, the university sold the 77-hectare (190-acre) property in 2008 to Corsica Development. Corsica wanted an astronomy group to operate the observatory. Two groups wanted it: RASC, and a group of astronomers called the David Dunlap Observatory Defenders (DDOD). Corsica chose RASC.

In response to the decision, the Defenders tried to block the opening. They said the telescope was a precious piece of Canadian heritage and expert astronomers should operate it, not amateurs as they claimed RASC members were.

Their attempt failed and DDO reopen in July 2009 under the care of RASC.

An article from The Varsity, the U of T’s student newspaper, raised questions about the university’s motives for selling the land and if they had the legal right to sell.

As outlined in the story, U of T and the Dunlap Observatory: 'A breach of public trust'?, the U of T said they wanted to sell the property because light pollution made the telescope unusable for research. The Defenders disputed that claim. Both they and a Richmond Hill official said the sale was about maximizing financial return, not science.

The Varsity also said the deal violated the terms of the endowment, which said that the land must be used for research or ownership would revert to the Dunlap heirs.

Two of the heirs agreed to the university’s plan after a few months but the third, Donalda Robarts, held out. She launched a lawsuit. After 4 years of intensive lobbying by the university, Robarts gave in. Her lawsuit was settled and the records were sealed.

The fighting continued over the next several years between the groups—the developer, the astronomers, the town of Richmond Hill, and a group called the Richmond Hill Naturalists.

As outlined in a Globe and Mail story, Fight over David Dunlap Observatory lands ends peacefully, the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) got the groups to negotiate a settlement. (The 24-page decision is here.)

Corsica Development could build 520 housing units on the site; the town of Richmond Hill would get ownership of the observatory and its surrounding land.

The Naturalists were the lone holdout to the deal. The OMB rejected their appeal.

The conciliatory tone of the article suggested that the war was over—prematurely, as it turned out.

In an editorial at the website, Competing observatory groups should work together, said the sniping continued in letters to them from some of the groups members. The editorial ended with a plea to the groups to put aside the bad blood and work together.

As further evidence that all is still not well, that donation from Corsica to RASC is not sitting well with some.

In a later article at, Richmond Hill observatory donation by developer raises concerns, the Defenders claim that because RASC is a registered charity, not a public agency as the agreement stipulated, the donation violates the terms of the settlement. Another lawsuit could be coming.

This is a familiar story: competing visions, elitism and a sense of entitlement, the tempting smell of money, hardening battle lines, and a lengthy, exhausting process with no one coming out looking good.

It’s too bad that in their winner-take-all battle over a reflecting telescope, the combatants didn’t do a bit of reflecting of their own.