Amherst councilors seek to overhaul streetlight policy

  • A view of Main Street in downtown Amherst.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/21/2022 7:59:29 PM
Modified: 8/21/2022 7:55:57 PM

AMHERST — Streetlights in Amherst, and how bright they make the town’s neighborhoods compared to those used in Northampton and Hadley, have been a source of concern for downtown resident Emily Boutilier.

“They waste energy and harm the health of humans and animals,” Boutilier wrote to the Gazette.

Despite continued feedback from residents like Boutilier worried about the intensity and placement of streetlights, there has been no way for town officials to address their issues using the existing policy last amended by the Select Board in 2001.

Now, two councilors are proposing an overhaul of the policy for the first time in more than 20 years.

“Light technology and light knowledge has changed a whole lot since then,” At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said during a presentation with District 5 Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier at Monday’s meeting.

But, as important as addressing the technological aspects, Hanneke said, is responding to the community.

“We believe that all residents should be able to sleep appropriately and without disruption from our public streetlights,” Hanneke said.

Hanneke said the issues with streetlights include their impact on public health, affecting a person’s circadian rhythm when they are unable to sleep, animal habitats and climate change.

The proposal to adopt a new policy, which councilors agreed to send to the Town Services and Outreach Committee for review, would set standards for brightness, also known as the correlated color temperature, by using the Kelvin scale. A cap of 2,700 Kelvin would be allowed for decorative streetlights and up to 2,200 Kelvin would be allowed for all other streetlights. Both would be in what Devlin Gauthier said is considered a warmer light range. 

The second part of the policy would put restrictions on where streetlights are commonly used, in part based on the number of pedestrians walking in those locations and other factors. This policy would create a streetscape lighting district in certain places, such as throughout downtown and other village centers, and establish other lighting zones based on the town’s zoning use map.

The original policy, adopted in the 1990s, came at a time when the town was looking to cut costs, including on energy, and also fit into a philosophy of taking back the night. The town turned off 117 streetlights, but the policy continued to provide for streetlights at all intersections, at the end of cul-de-sacs and along what are considered major roads.

Hanneke, who lives on the Foxglove Lane cul-de-sac, noted how her family has been affected by a streetlight that can’t be removed or dimmed based on current policy. Under a revised policy, though, streetlights at cul-de-sacs could be removed and replaced with reflectors, which would be sufficient for vehicles that would use their headlights to identify a road’s end.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman told councilors there needs to be systemic approach in decisions on where to place and remove streetlights. Otherwise, he said, there might be chaos in responding to demands from residents, and also a lack of cadence in the lighting along certain street corridors.

Whether councilors will support the new policy is unclear, though, as some councilors expressed concern that it could compromise safety and reduce the community being welcoming to pedestrians and bicyclists. 

“I’ve always been struck since I moved to Amherst how dark the streets are,” said District 3 Councilor Jennifer Taub

Taub said it makes her nervous to replace a bylaw that could make streets even darker. She said she hears from more people worried the town is already too dark.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said her worry is that the policy seems to privilege vehicles and drivers over people who walk and don’t have cars.

At Large Councilor Andy Steinberg said the Amherst Police’s Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, or CPTED, has relied on improved lighting as one element to keep a lid on disturbances, parties and other alcohol-fueled incidents.

“I’m worried we end up with a bylaw that doesn’t include the ability to get at these issues,” Steinberg said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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