Town Meeting Update: Outdoor Lighting Bylaw

This spring, the proposed zoning bylaw change that got the most public attention was tabled to a planned Fall Special Town Meeting. But the Planning Board has been holding hearings on three other zoning Articles.

This post focuses on Article 35 – Amend Town Code- Zoning – Outdoor Illumination. (I’ll cover the other two in a later post.)

Voters who haven’t been paying close attention to the Outdoor Lighting Bylaw may have questions or misperceptions. So, it’s (past) time to focus on what it does and doesn’t ask to do.

For those unfamiliar, the Town Code already has a bylaw outlining requirements for outdoor lighting. The Planning Board’s attempt to revise it was prompted by the increase of “light pollution” over the years, especially since the advent of LED lighting.

FAQs posted this week explain that under Article 35:

The proposed bylaw retains much of the existing language, focusing updates on two goals:

  • First, to modernize the bylaw with current standards to offer more flexibility to lighting plan designers, encourage use of focused light where needed and reduce light pollution
  • Second, to set the correlated color temperature of new LED lighting in town to limit harmful blue light, protect human health and the environment

The work on this bylaw began back in 2019 to prepare for last year’s Town Meeting. More public hearings were held this spring leading to changes from the Article publicly shared last year. And with two amendments intended to be made by the Planning Board tomorrow, even the language in the Warrant isn’t the final version.

The amendments were written in response to concerns raised by Advisory and the Board of Selectmen. One adds language to the definition section. The other is to make crystal clear that as FAQs state, the applicability of the bylaw isn’t being broadened and:

There is no requirement to change existing lights. However, once existing lighting reaches the end of its life or is broken, new replacement lighting must comply with the bylaw.

The amendment seeks to replaces some language in the Article with:

Those existing luminaires which are not in compliance with Section 174-12.1 entitled “Outdoor Illumination” as of its effective date, shall nevertheless be considered in compliance provided such Iuminaires satisfy the previous bylaw provisions as enacted by the, Town Meeting on April 11, 2005 by passage of Article 40 thereof, until the replacement of fixtures or luminaires is required as set forth herein. Fixtures or luminaires requiring replacement, for any reason, including but not limited to end of life, breakdown, vandalism shall be replaced in compliance with this Bylaw and further comply with the guidance outlined in the Rules and Regulations for Outdoor Illumination as promulgated by the Planning Board.

The FAQs also promise that complying with the bylaw changes won’t cost money:

It only requires responsible compliant lighting choices. You can buy lots of LED bulbs at different correlated color temperatures. The price of the bulb is not impacted by the correlated color temperature. We just need to buy luminaries that are environmentally safe at less than 3000K.

Click the following links for the full FAQs, Article, proposed amendments, and more documents (draft Rules & Regs, presentations and other relevant details). (For other Town Meeting information, click here.)

Selectmen and Advisory voted to support the Article with the proposed amendments. But leading up to those votes, there were some disagreements between Town officials about interpretation of the current bylaw and potential impact of the revisions on zoning enforcement. 

In discussions with the Board of Selectmen, then-Chair Marty Healey raised concerns that the changes would put an additional burden on the Building Department. Healey worried that the number of complaints lodged would rise. Planning Member Marnie Hoolahan argued that there have been minimal complaints in the past, and she doesn’t expect that to change. 

During the process of creating the bylaw, Town Counsel advised that the current bylaw applies to single and two-family residential properties and that the Building Commissioner is the enforcement agent. It appears that the Commissioner disagreed.

I checked in with Planning this morning on the latest status. According to Assistant Sara Hoecker, Hoolahan has said she is amenable to working with selectmen on developing a specific process for enforcement of the lighting bylaw in the future. But as it stands, the proposal doesn’t change zoning enforcement process. Since the Building Commissioner reports to selectmen, Planning wasn’t comfortable creating a new process for that on their own.

(There was also some public back and forth over Healey’s incorrect assertion at a BOS meeting that the bylaw would require people to change their existing lights. The dispute was laid to rest by Planning’s proposed amendment.)

Outdoor lighting from presentation to Planning from SAM videoThe Planning initiative dates back to April 2019, when Southborough resident Dr. Destin Heilman presented to the board on “The Promise and Perils of LED Lighting”. He spoke about the impact of a significant increase in blue light due to wide adoption of LEDs. For those who perceived brighter outdoor lighting meant safer streets and properties, he provided examples where the glare from the brighter lights actually reduces visibility of people in the area it was meant to illuminate.

His presentation prompted the Board to reevaluate the current lighting bylaw. Heilman partnered with Hoolahan and Hoecker on an Article to identify areas of improvement and propose changes. They held meetings with departments potentially impacted and public hearings in 2020 and 2021. Along the way they solicited feedback and made changes.

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Marnie Hoolahan
2 years ago

Thank you so very much for posting an update on this bylaw proposal! Hopefully people will be receiving a mailer today that The working group (Dr. Heilman, Sarah and I) put together to provide a high level overview of the bylaw. I think the biggest takeaway is that the “applicability” of this law pertains to the BULB.

In essence, the bylaw applies to any lot in Southborough that has a flood light or spotlight with a ~60W bulb or more or any other light with a ~120W bulb or more. So many homes have sconces, light posts, night scape lighting and UNLESS there is a bulb in those fixtures that is 120W or greater, this bylaw would not impact those fixtures. Most homes do not place bulbs greater than 100w in those fixtures since most can only accommodate up to 100w. Conversion to LED for that ~120w incandescent is about 20W in LED.

The bylaw language is very technical. The most important parts about this bylaw that people need to know are:
1) The current bylaw already applies to the BULB regardless of lot, nothing in this proposal has changed relative to the bulb or the lot- every lot in Southborough is part of the zoning language.
2) The Bylaw only applies to 60watt + bulbs that are in spotlights or floodlights and other lights with 120watt + bulbs (this too is unchanged from the current bylaw)
3) Only WHEN those bulbs need to be replaced, (i.e.broken, damaged or are updated for any reason) is when the bylaw states that the consumer or business owner must choose the 3000K or less bulbs to use in that fixture (The non blue emitting light). No one needs to go to Home Depot today to replace light bulbs tomorrow after this bylaw is hopefully approved!
4) The working group worked collaboratively with Advisory and BOS and we will be putting for 2 amendments on Town Floor to demonstrate that collaboration. They will improve the clarity of the time to replace AND provide definitions of what a spot light and flood light are.
5) This new bylaw has sports field lighting recommendations, our current bylaw does not. In fact, Planning and Recreation worked together to ensure that the recently approved Mooney Field and Neary Tennis courts were in 100% compliance with the blue light reduction and sports field lighting recommendations in the proposed bylaw. Further Chote field lighting approved several years ago is also in 100% compliance with the new blue light reduction bylaw
6) Blue light is bad for us as humans and bad for the environment. The goal beyond updating and modernizing the language is to protect our residents from harmful light
7) We are not the only town who has suggested this revision. 13 other towns in Massachusetts have already approved this language and 2 other towns are in process, like us. Further there is legislation in the State House and Senate to adopt blue light restrictions at a state level. Our bylaw is in full compliance with that proposed legislation.

At the end of the day, although the bylaw is 9 pages and seems technical and complex and I will be making some amendments on the Town floor, the impact on residents is the change from buying any kelvin temperature lightbulb to only buying those with 3000K or lower (all light bulbs carry the kelvin temperature rating on their boxes- that’s easy to find!). The goal is to protect our community and I am hopeful that 2/3 of the Town meeting attendees will vote in SUPPORT of #35! If anyone has any questions, I would urge you to send them to my Southborough email:

Another Vote NO
2 years ago

Common sense would tell you the lights on Route 9 or the lights turned on at the public fields, no matter what illumination standards they meet or don’t meet, will be far more impactful to the dark sky than ANY average homeowner outdoor illumination. This has the potential to create neighbor against neighbor dispute and yet no clear defined reinforcement. Who exactly will enforce such nonsense at taxpayer expense? Listen to the meetings and you will find out there is no clear plan on exactly how that will work and when (at night? after hours? etc). “Protect our community”… sure…how about addressing the speeding cars on the street versus mine or my neighbors light bulbs. Will the proposed 3% tax increase go to town or police salaries for enforcement? Hmmm.. Perhaps we should consider getting the noise under control first before we worry about blue light from the porch post. The landscaping crew that spends hours polluting the neighborhood with noise might be worse than the spotlight in the tree. This is a bunch of nonsense and voters absolutely should vote this down.

I wear my sunglasses at night
2 years ago

Let’s get real about this proposed bylaw: It is social engineering and do-gooderism being sold to voters as an attempt to protect the environment and our health, backed up with faux-scientific claims, and all but unenforceable without the creation of light policing seemingly destined to turn neighbor against neighbor. Do you know what the largest source of blue light is? The sun!

The fact that this proposal requires amendments on the floor of town meeting is yet further proof of how not-ready-for-prime-time it really is. If the proponents are serious about reducing light pollution in Southborough, they would refocus their efforts on the commercial properties along Route 9 and leave grandma’s driveway lamppost alone, lest a neighbor decide to vandalize it and thus force grandma into a fixture that would satisfy the arcane demands of the proposed bylaw.

Joe Landry
2 years ago

What turns neighbor against neighbor in my Southborough neighborhood, where one “neighbor’s” industrial power, intrusive outdoor lighting grossly violates existing regulations—all night, night after night—is when reasonable community regulations are not enforced by town officials. It shouldn’t be necessary to have to move bedrooms to the far side of one’s home in order to get a good night’s sleep—except in Southborough.

Kelly Roney
2 years ago

I’d like to be able to keep seeing the stars.

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