Northampton council poised to act on outdoor lighting rules

Professor James Lowenthal, who is chair of the Department of Astronomy at Smith College, sits for a portrait under the lights at Pulaski Park on Tuesday night in Northampton. Lowenthal has for years lobbied the city to upgrade its outdoor lighting regulations, which the City Council is hoping to vote on before the end of the year.

Professor James Lowenthal, who is chair of the Department of Astronomy at Smith College, sits for a portrait under the lights at Pulaski Park on Tuesday night in Northampton. Lowenthal has for years lobbied the city to upgrade its outdoor lighting regulations, which the City Council is hoping to vote on before the end of the year. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Professor James Lowenthal, who is chair of the department of astronomy at Smith College, stands for a portrait under the lights outside of the City Council Chambers on Tuesday night in Northampton. Lowenthal has for years lobbied the city to upgrade its outdoor lighting regulations, which the City Council is hoping to vote on before the end of the year.

Professor James Lowenthal, who is chair of the department of astronomy at Smith College, stands for a portrait under the lights outside of the City Council Chambers on Tuesday night in Northampton. Lowenthal has for years lobbied the city to upgrade its outdoor lighting regulations, which the City Council is hoping to vote on before the end of the year. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Professor James Lowenthal, who is chair of the department of astronomy at Smith College, stands for a portrait under the lights outside of the City Council Chambers on Tuesday night in Northampton. Lowenthal has for years lobbied the city to upgrade its outdoor lighting regulations, which the City Council is hoping to vote on before the end of the year.

Professor James Lowenthal, who is chair of the department of astronomy at Smith College, stands for a portrait under the lights outside of the City Council Chambers on Tuesday night in Northampton. Lowenthal has for years lobbied the city to upgrade its outdoor lighting regulations, which the City Council is hoping to vote on before the end of the year. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 11-26-2023 12:00 PM

NORTHAMPTON — In an attempt to both reduce light pollution and allow for greater safety at night, the city is looking to update its outdoor lighting policy, something it hopes to bring to a vote before the end of the year and the subsequent formation of a new City Council.

Members of the council’s Committee on Legislative Matters and the Planning Board held a joint meeting on Nov. 13 to discuss a proposed ordinance that would establish new standards for outdoor lighting in the city. The standards would ensure that any new lighting installed covers the lightbulb entirely, ban incandescent lights, and limit the total amount of lumens, or measure of visible light, by street lighting to be “the lowest levels of lumens necessary,” according to the current text of the ordinance.

Carolyn Misch, the city’s planning and sustainability director, said during the meeting that the ordinance, if enacted, would only apply to any new lighting installed and not be retroactively applied to existing city lights. She also said that the new ordinance would likely apply for the Picture Main Street project, which calls for new lighting to be installed on expanded sidewalks.

“We’re woefully behind on updating the technology to accommodate all the changes that have happened in the lighting industry,” Misch said. “We started working on this several years ago and just kind of stopped, and then started and stopped, and started again.”

Other exemptions to the ordinance include temporary lighting installed for festivals and fairs, underwater or pool lighting, and lighting at athletic fields provided that the lights for athletic events are turned off 30 minutes after the even concludes.

The joint meeting also held a public hearing on the proposed ordinance. James Lowenthal, an astronomy professor at Smith College, has long advocated for such an ordinance.

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“I think the values are fantastic that are articulated and embedded throughout this draft,” Lowenthal said. “The values are that darkness at night is worth preserving.”

Astronomers like Lowenthal often are opposed to light pollution within cities as it obstructs views of the night sky, encumbering observation of stars and planets. Night sky visibility is measured on what is known as the Bortle Scale, with a scale measure of one indicating the greatest darkness and nine reserved for the brightest inner city skylines.

According to data from NASA, Northampton’s downtown currently ranks about a five on the Bortle Scale, somewhere in between that polarity. That puts it lower than in Amherst’s downtown, which registers at a six, and much lower than in the nearby cities of Holyoke, Chicopee and Springfield.

Lowenthal, who in addition to being a professor at Smith also chairs the Massachusetts chapter of the group Dark Sky International and lead’s the American Astronomical Society’s committee on light pollution, said that darker skies were not only better for viewing, but also safer.

“Good lighting actually enhances safety, and bad lighting doesn’t,” Lowenthal said. “By bad lighting, we mean lighting that is excessive, that’s too blue, that’s left on all night long even when it’s not necessary, that is going in all directions, even up in the sky rather than just down on the ground.”

Members of the Planning Board and Legislative Matters said the draft needs more reworking of its language before being sent back to the full council for a vote.

Councilor at-large Marissa Elkins said she planned on reaching out to some more constituents before making a recommendation on the ordinance.

“It’s folks who have a need to be out walking around at night because they have to be,” Elkins said. “In particular the entertainment or late night businesses-type situations.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.