Northampton discussing measure that would require businesses to stop lighting parking lots at night

Last modified: Monday, November 10, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — Supporters of a proposal to turn off lights in parking lots at night say it would reduce what they see as light pollution — and a waste of electricity. But the police chief claims the move could lead to more crime.

A proposal under consideration by the City Council would require businesses to shut off outside lights in parking lots in the wee hours of the morning, with supporters saying it would conserve energy as well as reduce light pollution.

At Thursday’s council meeting, Police Chief Russell P. Sienkiewicz argued that lighting is the second most important tool in crime prevention, following behind increased patrols.

“At night, without the lights, it hinders us,” said Sienkiewicz.

Meanwhile, a group of residents led by James Lowenthal, a professor of astronomy at Smith College and a member of the city’s Transportation and Parking Commission, submitted a “Starry Skies” petition with 40 signatures to the city Thursday calling to protect residents from light pollution.

In a presentation before the council, he showed a time-lapse picture of downtown Northampton at night in which the sky was aglow with lights from the city.

“This is something that we should not be proud of,” Lowenthal said. “All that light in the sky is light pollution. It’s completely unnecessary ... much of it (the light) is going straight up into the sky where it does nobody any good at all.”

Supporters of the petition believe that the “wonder of the starry night sky is a priceless gift of nature that should be available to all and protected for future generations.”

Though not related to the Starry Skies petition, the ordinance recommended by the Office of Planning and Sustainability would require all outdoor property lighting in business districts not attached to a building — primarily parking lots — be turned off one hour after the close of business or up to one hour before the opening of business unless granted an exemption by the Planning Board. The proposal does not include lights inside a business or on a public street.

The change would apply to projects submitted to the city down the road, with existing businesses grandfathered under current regulations unless they apply for a permit to upgrade their site lighting or change a building’s use, said Carolyn Misch, the city’s senior land use planner.

She said the idea for the change is the result of a disparity in permits issued by the Planning Board in recent years. The board decides whether to require a business to turn off site lighting on a case-by-case basis, but Misch said members want to have uniform guidelines.

“The ideas was really to make a level playing field so everyone was abiding by the same standards,” Misch said.

No decisions were made at the council’s Thursday meeting. Councilors instead will take more time to study the issue and seek input from business owners who may be affected by such a change.

Lowenthal’s petition asks the city to update its outdoor lighting code to reflect current best practices, strictly enforce the code and educate citizens and business owners about the importance of well-designed outdoor lighting.

Such protection would save energy, ensure safety by reducing glare from poorly designed lighting, showcase the city’s beauty with well-designed lighting, improve public health and protect wildlife, according to the petition.

Lowenthal said site lights are most effective when they shine down, not scattered out and up as is the case throughout the city. Additionally, lights should not be brighter or on longer than necessary, he said.

The petition is broader in scope than the ordinance amendment before the council. It will become part of the public record and its merits considered as talks about the city’s lighting code advance in the coming weeks.


In their remarks before the council, Lowenthal and Sienkiewicz disagreed about whether the effect of lighting on crime rates.

Lowenthal said the most dangerous cities are all brightly lit and there’s no evidence that bright lighting deters crime. He said several cities in the United States already have successful light curfews, including San Diego; Tucson, Arizona; and Riverside, California, as well as Paris. Lighting an empty parking lot in the middle of the night protects no one and is a “complete waste,” Lowenthal said.

“There’s lots of ways to solve crime, but throwing light at it is not the solution,” he said.

While he supports the idea of improving lighting design standards, Sienkiewicz said he can’t support an ordinance that calls for businesses to turn off lights at night.

“Lighting is universally acknowledged as being the second most effective crime prevention and reduction strategy, second only to increased police patrols,” the chief said.

He said lighting has five positive purposes: deterrence, detection, surveillance, fear reduction and liability reduction.

“These will all be negatively impacted by abolishing outdoor freestanding lighting in commercial and business districts,” he said.

Without lighting at night, video monitoring systems are rendered useless and officers doing security checks on patrol would need to take extra time to drive into each dark parking lot rather than observing from the street, the chief said. Loss of light would also impair the ability of citizens to help be the “eyes and ears” for the department.

Additionally, Sienkiewicz argued, the Department of Justice recommends better lighting for security. He cited studies that indicate properly lighting a property deters crime. A series of 13 studies in Britain, for example, found 20 percent more crime occurred in dark areas compared to light areas, he said.

“I would ask just for you to consider if good lighting is important,” Sienkiewicz said. “If you’re a nurse or a clerk working late and you have to walk in a dark parking lot because you are half-hour behind when a business is closed, would lighting be good for you? Would you feel comfortable?”

Councilors expect to revisit the issue soon after reading some of the studies cited by Lowenthal and Sienkiewicz and speaking with business owners and other stakeholders.

Chad Cain can be reached at


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