Street Lighting Big Topic at Williamstown Fire District Meeting

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Williamstown Prudential Committee members, from left, Ed Briggs, Ed McGowan and John Notsley, participate in Tuesday's annual district meeting.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Several residents concerned about the threat of light pollution Tuesday pressed the leaders of the fire district to rethink a plan to replace town's street lights.
The occasion was the annual fire district meeting at Williamstown Elementary School, where voters re-elected a longtime member of the three-person Prudential Committee that governs the district and passed seven spending articles, including the omnibus $488,151 operating budget for fiscal year 2020.
But the expenditure that drew the most interest — a $72,000 line item in that budget — was street lighting.
The fire district, a separate municipal entity outside of the rest of town government, has jurisdiction over street lights going back to the days when such lights were lit by gas.
The topic of lighting — whether there is too much or not enough in particular neighborhoods — often is a subject of discussion at Prudential Committee meetings, where residents come to raise such issues.
But on Tuesday, all the town's street lights were on the table because of an agreement the district reached with National Grid to swap out the current fixtures with LED lights.
The Prudential Committee notes that the changeover will benefit town taxpayers, and the more efficient bulbs use less electricity, which is good for the environment.
Prudential Committee Chair John Notsley said the switch will mean a $50,000 one-time rebate, and officials said the town could realize a 25 percent decrease in annual operating costs with the more efficient lights.
Neither of those savings are reflected in the FY20 budget because the district does not know when National Grid — which owns the fixtures — will be switched.
The problem is that the LED bulbs likely to be installed burn at a temperature of 4,000 degrees Kelvin, resident Roger Lawrence told the meeting when the committee opened the floor to other business at the conlusion of its printed warrant.
"The higher you go on the Kelvin scale, the harsher and more blue the light is ... as you drop down [the Kelvin scale], the lighting is a little more expensive but easier on the eyes," Lawrence said. "I think it would have a pretty profound effect on the character of the town to change the lighting to a harsher, brighter light.
"A number of people in town have concerns about that. And it's a debate going on around the world, not just in Williamstown. LED is more efficient ... but the trade off is, if we create a visually unhealthy environment, that may outweigh the cost savings."
Lawrence cited a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that reported lighting at higher temperatures was associated with disrupting subjects' circadian rhythms.
"Those studies are going on right now, but there's a good deal of evidence to suggest it may be a health issue," he said. "Is there some way you guys can initiate a public discussion of the issue and allow the people of Williamstown to weigh in."
Three members of the Planning Board, which has identified a new public lighting bylaw as a priority item for its 2019-20 discussions, attended Tuesday's meeting and participated in the discussion about street lights.
Though no one in the room could say with certainty whether National Grid or the Fire District would be bound by any limits the town may set in a bylaw under consideration for next May's annual town meeting.
"I've been told that if the town passes the bylaw, the Prudential Committee doesn't have to follow it," Planning Board member Alex Carlisle said. "Is that correct?"
"It's the first I've heard of this," Notsley replied.
"How could I get an answer to my question?" Carlisle asked.
"Town counsel," Notsley said.
The fire district's moderator, Paul Harsch, who was re-elected in Tuesday's balloting prior to the meeting, suggested that a Carlisle or any concerned resident could address that question to the town manager, who could authorize the town counsel to supply an opinion.
In principle, members of the Prudential Committee agreed with the residents raising concerns that lower-temperature bulbs would be preferable, but the committee pointed to a contract it already has signed with National Grid to do the replacements.
Committee member Ed Briggs said that it's a slow process, but he would be happy to press the utility to go with the cooler bulbs.
"If we get the fixtures in place, even with the brighter lights ... it's a fast changeout for the bulb," he said. "We're in the pecking order now to get the job done. Let's do it and change the bulbs when they're available."
Stephanie Boyd, another member of the Planning Board, said that there are communities in the commonwealth who already are using street lights that burn at 3,000 degrees Kelvin or lower.
"You can provide street lighting that is less than 4,000," Boyd said.
"National Grid doesn't provide lighting for all the towns in Massachusetts," Briggs answered.
Boyd agreed, pointing out that some municipalities own their own street lights and, thus, have greater control over the fixtures and bulbs.
The Prudential Committee rejected that idea, pointing out that the fire district's current expense for lighting — $72,000 for FY20 and expected to drop — would balloon if the district was responsible for replacing poles every time a motorist or weather takes one down.
At one point, Briggs jokingly suggested that the solution would be to have Town Hall take street lighting off the district's plate, where it has resided as long as there have been street lights.
Resident Susan Abrams suggested that the decision on the level of lighting might be taken away from the district and the utility if a bill working its way through the Legislature advances.
Senate Bill 1937, "An Act Improving Outdoor Lighting and Increasing Dark-Sky Visibility," would cap roadway lighting at 3000 Kelvin. The measure is sponsored by Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem, D-Newton, and co-sponsored by Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield. It currently is before the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, which has no Berkshire representation from the House or the Senate.
Briggs indicated that while he personally agrees that lower-temperature lights might be better, the Prudential Committee is not interested in getting out of the contract to bring more efficient street lights to town.
"Right now, there's a program available to us, and we want to take advantage of it and start saving the town money," Briggs said. "Write your legislator and tell them you want warm light, the 3,000 Kelvin lights rather than the 4,000. Put some pressure on them. That's how we'll get to that point."
Another topic of discussion at Tuesday's meeting was the fire district's use of reserve funds.
Resident Fred Puddester questioned why the district is holding — between free cash and its stabilization fund — an amount about twice its annual operating expenses.
"That may sound like a lot, but we're looking to build a new fire station in the next couple of years," Notsley said.
The committee members also pointed out on numerous occasions that the district has a long-standing practice of funding new apparati from its stabilization fund rather than borrowing. The district currently has four trucks ranging in age from 28 to 12 years old.
"Years ago, we always considered a truck to be roadworthy for 30 years," Notsley said. "With the advent of what they're putting on the roads during the winter, the chemicals they use, these trucks are not lasting like they used to. The 30-year figure doesn't hold."
Boyd also challenged the Prudential Committee on Article 8 on Tuesday's warrant.
The article asked whether district voters would authorize the district to raise through taxation $5,000 to be set aside as matching funds for potential grants that the district may receive in FY20.
According to the balance sheet provided to voters at Tuesday's meeting, the district's "matching grants" account currently has $11,247. In the past, the district has been able to leverage such funds for sizable purchases of equipment with federal or state funds.
Boyd did not question the need for matching funds but questioned why it could not be funded out of free cash.
District Clerk/Treausurer Corydon Thurston, who was elected on Tuesday night, answered that funding the the matching fund account through a separate appropriation — as opposed to from the operating budget — protects taxpayers because they know that $5,000 can only be used for the stated purpose.
Boyd thanked him for the explanation, and the article, like all the spending items on Tuesday's warrant, passed by a unanimous voice vote.

Tags: energy efficiency,   prudential committee,   street lights,   

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Williamstown Decides to Clear Out Water Street Lot

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A long-time de facto parking lot on Water Street will be closed to vehicles as of March 1, the town has announced.
The 1.27-acre dirt lot that was most recently the site of the town garage has been used to park cars for decades. But the town has never formally considered it a parking lot, and it is not paved, lined or regulated in any way.
The town manager Thursday said that concerns about liability at the site led to a decision to place barriers around the lot to block cars this winter and for the foreseeable future.
"Over the fall, we kept an eye on it, and what we were seeing was upward of 160 or 170 cars on any given day," Bob Menicocci said. "It got to the point where, because of its unregulated nature, the Police Department was getting calls for service saying, ‘I'm blocked in. Can you tow this car?' that kind of thing.
"It was becoming an untenable situation."
The town's observation of the lot found a high percentage of the cars belonged to people connected to Williams College, mainly students who used it for overnight parking. That conclusion is borne out by the way the lot tends to be a lot emptier during college breaks.
In the fall, the school's student newspaper ran an article describing the lot as, "a perfectly legal spot to stash a car, and thus, [where] it seems that College students have lucked into a free, convenient parking lot."
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