NORTHAMPTON — After many meetings that date all the way back to October 2023, the Northampton City Council unanimously approved upgrades to its outdoor lighting policies to promote more energy efficiency and better safety throughout the city during its Feb. 1 meeting.

The ordinance — which has come in front of the City Council, Legislative Matters Committee and Planning Board multiple times — upends an antiquated outdoor lighting ordinance that has been implemented in the city since 2007.

“I think this is momentous,” said Ward 1 City Councilor Stan Moulton, during the council meeting. “I particularly want to offer major kudos to [Planning and Sustainability] Director Carolyn Misch for orchestrating what has been an extraordinarily technical synthesis of hearing from advocates for cleaning up our light pollution, for looking at other communities for best practices and for putting up with a meticulous review of this.”

During a Jan. 4 council meeting, Misch explained to the council how the updated ordinance creates parameters around light, color and temperature, as well as more specificity around glare control, location of lighting and direct lighting.
The updated ordinance creates standards that result in lighting systems that are designed, constructed and installed to address offsite impacts/glare control, safety, energy efficiency and environmental impacts.

“All outdoor light fixtures and illuminated signs for all uses and structures within the city of Northampton must be designed, located, installed and directed in such a manner as to limit light trespass at the property lines and glare at any location on or off the property,” reads the current “Standards” section in the ordinance language.

The updated ordinance provides different standards and mechanisms that must be followed, like prohibiting light trespassing or using full cutoff-type fixtures for shielding purposes to prevent glare.

The new amendment also builds greater safety measures and aims to reduce the energy demand and carbon footprint with strategies like eliminating mercury vapor and incandescent lighting fixtures.

The ordinance also solidifies illumination levels for different zoning districts and states that “the emission of light of light by all luminaires in all lighting must have a correlated color temperature of the light between 0 to 2700 degrees Kelvin.”

During the Jan. 4 City Council meeting, Misch said that these new standards will only apply to new installations in the city.

“Just because the standards that you’re looking at today and through this process introduce some new parameters and some different controls, it doesn’t mean that the lights all over the city will change and now they’ll comply to this,” Misch said. “All the existing lights out there will continue to be there.”

The ordinance comes with language that gives the Planning Board discretion to provide a waiver from streetlight standards to projects, but only if the waiver is necessary to improve pedestrian safety on pedestrian ways or crosswalks, or if costs to the city for municipally funded projects to meet by-right standards are considered “extraordinary.”

“Waivers granted to the city for extraordinary costs must be supported by (1) evidence that design, procurement and installation costs to comply with by-right standards are more than 50% more than costs associated with the non-compliant design, or (2) demonstrated loss of alternative funding for the project,” reads the waiver language.

The waiver language also states that no waiver will be granted that increases the uplight rating or the color temperature above 3,000 Kelvin.

Several advocates from the public have spoken in favor of the updated ordinance, including James Lowenthal, an astronomy professor at Smith College who also spearheads Northampton City Lights and Dark Sky Massachusetts. Lowenthal has been instrumental in providing guidance to the council during this process.

“Northampton has adopted the five principles of responsible outdoor lighting at night,” Lowenthal said during the Feb. 1 meeting. “This ordinance is consistent with those principles.”

The council was in a celebratory mood right before officially passing the updated ordinance, with many thanking all of the people who were involved in the process.

“I just want to briefly give a big shout out to the Planning Board who put in such great work on this; their work and their contribution in the joint Legislative Matters-Planning Board meetings was invaluable and added a lot of clarity and really enriched our discussion of this,” said At-Large City Councilor Marissa Elkins. It’s certainly worth noting that their part in this civic process has been extraordinary and very valuable.”

The ordinance contains some exemptions including festivals/fairs that require the use of temporary outdoor lighting, underwater/pool lighting and airport operations lighting established by the Federal Aviation Administration, Other exemptions are also listed.

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