January 27th hearings on Bylaw changes: Reducing Light Pollution, Updating Site Plan Review, Zoning Amendments, and Downtown Business Village

Above: New bylaws to protect dark skies are one of four Article initiatives that the Planning Board will hold hearings for later this month. (image from Dr. Heilman’s April presentation recorded by SAM)

The Planning Board will hold hearings this month on four proposed Articles for Annual Town Meeting. Hearings will be held on Monday, January 27th in the Town House Hearing Room, starting at 7:05 pm.

Two Articles are initiatives by other committees: Zoning Board of Appeals’ Zoning Amendments by the Economic Development Committee’s efforts to create a “Downtown Business Village” zone.  (Look for future coverage on these.)

Today, I’m going to focus on the two bylaw revisions that are drafted and sponsored by Planning: amending “Outdoor Illumination” bylaws and updating language under “Site Plan Review”.

Site Plan Review Update

Last June, Town Planner Karina Quinn informed the board that there was conflicting Town Code around Minor Site Plan Review.

Under zoning bylaws, responsibility for certain minor projects/changes is assigned to a Site Plan Review Committee. That committee was defined to be comprised of Town employees/designees (Town Planner, public safety & works officials, etc.). But, a 2015 update to the Town Code restricted voting rights of Town committee members to Southborough residents only.

That means that the SPRC can’t do its job, since its members generally don’t live in town.

Planning Chair Don Morris asked if Quinn preferred using the SPRC for minor review. Stating that she had only used it once, the Town Planner said she preferred to hold public hearings. The board agreed to recommend to Town Counsel that the SPRC be dissolved and the zoning bylaw updated.

The change proposed by Planning would specify that Minor Site Plan review is not subject to public hearings. That avoids the more stringent requirement to post in the newspaper 14 days prior. Reviews and votes would still be subject to general Open Meeting Laws.

Most of the proposed changes simply switch the responsibility for Minor Site Plan Review to the Planning Board. Other changes, including to Major Site Plan Review, focus on requirements for submitted materials. It also clarifies that the board’s requirement to act on Major Site Plan Review hinges on the timing of a “complete” application submission.

You can view the board’s proposed redlined changes from this week’s meeting packet here. (Though it is possible that a revised version will be posted prior to the public hearing if Town Counsel recommends changes.)

Outdoor Illumination Bylaws

In April, resident Dr. Destin Heilman presented to the board on “The Promise and Perils of LED Lighting”. In introducing the topic, he warned:

If we’re not careful, instead of helping the environment, we can end up damaging it more.

He spoke about the impact of a significant increase in blue light due to wide adoption of LEDs. He also provided examples where the glare from the brighter lights actually reduces visibility of people in the area it is meant to illuminate.

Heilman’s concerns included health impacts of blue light and the growing disappearance of dark skies which impacts many animals and insects. (You can watch his presentation here. You can also look at his submitted supporting materials here.)

Answering the board’s questions, Heilman explained that LED lights don’t have to be blue. They can be “tuned” to appear more yellow while keeping their energy efficiency. 

The board supported having the Planning Department form a Working Group, including Heilman, to propose changes to the bylaw requirements for outdoor lighting.

The new bylaws won’t just focus on the color and brightness of lighting. They also seek to contain light pollution by regulating where it should be directed and some curfews.  

A draft posted for this week’s meeting clarifies that the new requirements would apply to certain new/altered installations:

Except as described below, all outdoor lighting installed after the date of effect of this bylaw shall comply with these requirements. This includes, but is not limited to, new lighting, replacement lighting, or any other lighting whether attached to structures, poles, the earth, or any other location, including lighting installed by any third party, with the following exceptions: emergency lighting; hazard warning; temporary decorative or holiday lighting or public roadway illumination. It shall also not apply to any luminaire intended solely to illuminate any freestanding sign, flag or the walls of any building, but such luminaire shall be shielded so that its direct light is confined to the surface of such sign, flag or building.

[1] The replacement of existing fixtures shall be subject to the provisions of this section; however, the replacement of existing nonconforming lamps or fixtures with the same or lower output nonconforming lamps or fixtures are exempted.

On Monday night, Heilman addressed written feedback from the Town’s Facilities Director. He said that he was puzzled by the recommendation that he look to guidelines from the Dark Sky International standards since that’s where they cribbed language from. He and Planning Admin Sarah Hoecker (who helped draft the Article) and Planning member Meme Luttrell disagreed with a request that Town facilities be exempt. Hoecker argued that the Town should lead by example and comply with regulations it forces on others.

Heilman also pushed back on the concern that regulations might cause a relationship problem with National Grid who we rent street lights from. He was dismayed to learn about that agreement. He told the board that NGrid tends to default to 4000 Kelvin bulbs “incredibly bright, incredibly blue”. (He said there was speculation that they have a surplus of them.) He claimed that there had been a lot of issues and pushback from towns after NGrid installed lights. He recommended working with National Grid to avoid the town looking like a giant parking lot. 

The version of the bylaw posted wasn’t the final version. The Working Group planned to work on addressing some feedback in the daft this week. An updated version will be submitted for Town Counsel’s review. Quinn hopes his changes will come back in time for them to post by next Monday. So stay tuned for the version to be discussed at the hearing.

In the meantime, I put together a redlined version of the new bylaw so you could see what they’re aiming for. (The version posted appeared to redline changes vs an earlier draft. My redline is a comparison of the newest version and the existing bylaws.) You can see that here. You can also see the draft of the new Planning Board rules and regulations document here.

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4 years ago

Every taxpayer should view this recent Planning Board Meeting 1-6-20. The EDC meets with the Planning Board and gives its views on downtown. Resident taxpayers should pay special attention to the Newton Street resident’s feedback:


See the 2.22.33 minute mark, about 1/2 way through the tape. Also, just prior, EDC is flummoxed by Planning Board’s basic questions on traffic and parking, as well as changing the bucolic charm. Every taxpayer needs to view this discussion. The resident points out lack of resident stakeholder inclusion in the ULI study, a skewing of perspective. Seven EDC members attend the recent Master Plan feedback meeting (40 attendees on a rainy night). The posted feedback is heavily skewed to mixed use / residential, exactly what the EDC is promulgating. Awareness is key. Thanks.

Colin Henshaw
4 years ago

I read a recent article in the Harrow Times about a proposal to install twenty-one thousand LED street lights in a London suburb. Any local authority considering amending their street lighting implement the following policies and recommendations.

1) First of all, not every citizen wants street lighting outside their homes, and their views must be respected and taken into account. If requested not to install street lighting outside a property, they must comply, and not listen to protestations from lighting authorities.

2) Light at night is harmful to both human health and the environment. That is now well established beyond all shadow of a doubt. Furthermore, more and brighter lighting does not reduce crime. If anything it will increase it. Most crime of the kind we fear occurs in daylight, ergo criminals need light. Deploying blanket street light coverage just extends daylight into the hours of darkness, causing people to behave more at night as they woukd during the day, thereby encouraging criminality. It comes as no surprise that our most crime-infested areas are also the most intensively lit.

So what is the solution?
a) If street lighting is construed to be necessary, low colour temperature (1750K) lighting should be used.
b) The luminaires should be fully recessed into their housings, so they are not visible at at distance. This should eliminate light intrusion onto neighbouring properties.
c) The luminaires, measured in lumens, should not be over-luminous and should only be bright enough to aid the eye’s natural ability to see in the dark. Over-bright lighting is counter-productive and dazzles the eye, creating contrasting light and dark areas making it more difficult to see.
d) In residential and suburban areas, street lights should be motion operated, and subject to an 11p.m. till dawn curfew.

These recommendations should not be negotiable, and municipal lighting authorities told to comply with these recommendations without question. This is a win-win situation. Light will always be available when needed, and there will be no loss of amenity. The negative impacts of lighting on human health and the environment will then be minimised.

Thanking you in anticipation,

Colin Henshaw

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