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Astronomers Atop Mount Hamilton Join Battle Against Digital Billboards Going Up In San Jose

SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) – As San Jose revisits the issue of digital billboards, astronomers at Lick Observatory concerned about light pollution are now weighing in.

The city is considering such billboards in a number of locations, and a couple of them will be right along the edge of Mineta San Jose International Airport property. They would be right in front of the drivers on Highway 101.

But there's another party involved that says those lights will be shining right in their eyes, and that would be the astronomers up on top of Mount Hamilton.

"The site was purposely selected by the founder, James Lick, to conduct astronomical observations above the pollution from cities, including light pollution," says Dr. Paul Lynam, a Lick Observatory resident astronomer.

For astronomers like Lynam, light pollution is more than a nuisance. It's becoming an increasing threat for the observatory that has changed mankind's understanding of the universe.

Even the most sophisticated telescope here is slowly losing its vision.

"So for certain fainter objects, as the background light goes up, we're going to be unable to make those kinds of detections anymore," Lynam explained to KPIX 5.

So Lynam, along with the U.C. observatory, are adding their voices to the citizen-lead campaign against the illuminated billboards, now being considered by the Airport Commission.  The airport says the digital signs, such as those further up 101, are a necessary revenue stream and within the rules set by the City Council.

"You know, the city's own planning department conducted a survey," said Jason Hemp with the group No Digital Billboards in San Jose. "They found that over 93% opposed digital billboards going up around town."

Residents like Hemp have been pushing back for years.

"Well, we are certainly not in the business of campaigning," Lynam laughs.

Lynam says the city and county were, for years, great partners in the fight against light pollution. He's hoping they take another look.

"You know, the city Council and the airport commission needs to consider, really, the wider picture here," Lynam said. "And hopefully public opinion will lead it. As I said before, the noise of the observatory for the line behind the majority of public opinion."

The debate will go back before the Airport Commission, with a hearing is set for Wednesday evening.

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