The Westminster Astronomical Society wants to open up the night sky for Carroll County residents by building an observatory at Bear Branch Nature Center.
Yesterday, the organization received preliminary support from the county commissioners to move forward on its plan.
"It sounds like a great idea," said Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr.
The society's proposal calls for a 32-foot-by-32-foot observatory at the nature center outside Westminster.
The building would be equipped with three telescopes and a retractable roof. An open picnic area with a roof frame would be built next to the observatory to take in the roll-off roof.
The group, founded in 1984, would cover construction and operating costs through fund raising.
The project is estimated to cost $50,000, including expenses for construction, building materials and equipment such as computers at the observatory, said Wayne Bird, the group's treasurer and fund-raising coordinator.
The society, which has filed for nonprofit status, plans to solicit corporate sponsors and design and labor services, as well as financial donations, Bird said.
Over the years, the 90- member society has received several telescopes as gifts, including a 25-inch scope that weighs 400 pounds, Bird said. Besides finding a permanent place for the telescope, the observatory would provide an education center for astronomy and space science, he said.
"We do a lot of outreach to the public," Bird told the commissioners. "We need a permanent place to put them so we could expand our outreach."
The organization provides education programs for Carroll schools, Boy and Girl Scouts and other youth groups. Members also volunteer their services at Bear Branch Nature Center's planetarium.
The society would provide public viewing sessions and other educational programs at the observatory, bringing new members and benefits to the nature center, Bird said.
After initial concerns about costs, the county Department of Recreation and Parks supports the project, said director Richard Soisson.
With the society agreeing to pay construction and operating costs, such as phone and Internet service, electricity and security, the county would only provide maintenance for the observatory, Soisson said.
Commissioner Dean L. Minnich, who expressed support for the observatory, wondered yesterday about legal issues surrounding the observatory, including who would own the building.
Once the observatory is completed, the county would own the building but the society would own the equipment and pay for operating costs, Soisson said, adding that a memorandum of understanding would be drafted between the county and the organization.
Soisson, County Attorney Kimberly A. Millender and the county Department of General Services are expected to meet with the astronomy group to sort out the legal and construction details before getting final approval from the commissioners.
"Great, this is what we wanted," Bird said. "Now we take the next step."