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 Committee Report

Committee Report #1


In City Council March 23, 2009

Councillor Henrietta Davis, Chair  
Councillor Craig Kelley  
Vice Mayor Sam Seidel  

The Health and Environment Committee held a public meeting on Tuesday, February 24, 2009 at five o'clock and five minutes P.M. in the Sullivan Chamber.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss dark sky principles and a variety of issues related to appropriate lighting and light pollution.

Present at the meeting were Councillor Henrietta Davis, Chair of the Committee, Councillor Craig Kelley, Councillor Sam Seidel, Margaret Drury, City Clerk and Penny Peters, assistant to Councillor Davis.  Present from the city administrative staff were Beth Rubenstein, Assistant City Manager for Community Development, Lester Barber, Director of Zoning and Land Use Planning, Community Development Department (CDD), Stuart Dash, Director of Community and Neighborhood Planning, CDD and Iram Farooq, project planner, CDD, George Fernandes, City Electrician and Rangit Singanayagam, Commissioner of Inspectional Services.  Also present were several members of the Cambridge community, who are identified as part of the report.

Councillor Davis convened the meeting and explained that she called the meeting to discuss complaints about lighting, protection of the dark sky from light pollution and energy efficiency opportunities as they pertain to lighting.  Councillor Davis stated her intent to begin the meeting with a description by city administrative staff of the regulatory framework and invited Mr. Barber to describe the zoning laws that regulate lighting. 

Mr. Barber said that there are not many requirements in the Zoning Ordinance.  He cited Section 6.46 Lighting, a subsection of Article 6.40, Design and Maintenance of Off Street Parking Facilities and Section 7.20 Illumination, a subsection of Article 7, Signs and Illumination, commonly referred to as the Sign Ordinance. 

Mr. Barber noted that the emphasis in Section 6.46 appears to be focused on ensuring adequate lighting.  Section 6.46 provides that "Off street parking facilities which are used at night shall be provided with adequate lighting installed and maintained in such a manner so as not to reflect or cause glare on abutting or facing residential premises nor to cause reflection on facing residential premises nor to adversely affect safe vision of operators of vehicles moving on nearby streets.  A recommended standard for lighting is a minimum intensity of one foot candle on the entire surface of the parking facility."

The Sign Ordinance prohibits illuminated commercial signs in residential areas and establishes regulations for illuminated commercial signs in business, office and industrial districts.  Section 7.15 provides that "All lighting [for all permitted signs] shall be indirect, continuous, and installed in a manner that will prevent direct light from shining onto any street or adjacent property.  Flashing or intermittent light creating flashing, moving, changing or animated graphics is prohibited". . . [with certain exceptions].  Section 7.20 Illumination provides that in Residence A,B, C and C-1 districts  no outdoor floodlighting or decorative lighting except lighting primarily designed to illuminate walks, driveways, outdoor living areas or outdoor recreational facilities shall be permitted, and that all permitted permanent outdoor lighting in these districts shall be continuous, indirect and installed in a manner that will prevent direct light from shining onto any street or adjacent property. 

Ms. Farooq noted that Article 19 of the Zoning Ordinance, Project Review, in Section 19.33(9), sets forth an urban design criterion of outdoor lighting requiring a design that will provide the minimum lighting necessary to ensure adequate safety, night vision and comfort, while minimizing light pollution. 

Commissioner Singanayagam said that most of the complaints to the Inspectional Services Department (ISD) about lighting are based on the Section 7.20 provision of the Sign Ordinance.  He added that the Sanitary Code contains a requirement for adequate lighting for safety.

Councillor Davis then invited Kelly Beatty, Senior Contributing Editor, Sky and Telescope Magazine, Chair of the New England Light Advisory Group and board member of the International Dark Sky Organization, to discuss preservation of the dark sky.  Mr. Beatty's presentation is summarized in a hard copy of the slide show (Attachment 1), with which he accompanied his remarksNighttime light is meant to light up the ground, but much of it goes straight up into the sky instead.  Street lights are the single biggest source of light pollution.  Fully shielded street lights prevent this light pollution, and a lot of Cambridge's streetlights are fully shielded.  Security pack lights on buildings constitute another serious source of light pollution.

In addition to creating sky glow, which can render the Milky Way invisible to entire urban regions, light pollution causes glare that can create significant visual impairment, can have serious environmental effects upon nocturnal species and migrating birds and can possibly increase incidences of cancer among human beings.  Light pollution also represents an unacceptable energy waste.

Councillor Davis invited questions about Mr. Beatty's presentation from other City Councillors.

Councillor Seidel asked about a requirement in a California municipality for use of a certain type of streetlight that does not disrupt astronomical activities.  Mr. Beatty said that the type of light to which Councillor Seidel is referring is low sodium light, which produces a monochromatic gleam.  It is not very popular.   Everything looks gray.

Councillor Davis asked Mr. Beatty what he would recommend that Cambridge do to reduce light pollution.  Mr. Beatty said that a three-fold attack is needed:

  • Amend the zoning to require that developers show a lighting plan.
  • Pass an ordinance to control the existing and future lighting through quantifiable requirements.  (Mr. Beatty suggested looking at the draft model lighting ordinance on the International Dark-Sky Association website at
  • Control municipal street lighting and security lighting - evaluate it for necessity, and use fully shielded lights. 

Mr. Beatty informed the committee that street lights are not required by law, and there are usually many places where fewer lights would provide all the light necessary.  Councillor Davis said that police should see the photo in Mr. Beatty's slide presentation in which a spotlight on a walkway did not increase security; rather, the glare from the light rendered a person standing on the walkway invisible from farther down the walkway.  When the spotlight was shielded, the person could be seen clearly.

Councillor Davis then opened the discussion for questions and comments from all present.

Thomas Stohlman, 19 Channing Street, Co-Chair of the Mt. Auburn Neighborhood Association, described the association's experience during the permitting process for the Mt. Auburn Hospital expansion, as they attempted to reach agreements to limit the light that spills over into the neighborhood.  There was a cooperative process to get standards written into the special permit.  The problem is with enforcement.

Fleet Hill, 22 Longfellow Road, Co-Chair of the Mt. Auburn Neighborhood Association, said that a condition of the special permit is that the light is only for the hospital campus, but the unshielded lighting from the interior of the patients' rooms shines brightly on nearby residences.  The hospital's position is that patients cannot be told to keep their shades down.  There is also a band of light in the lobby and a canopy that do not comply with the condition of keeping the light on the campus.  She added that the lighting in the parking area works well and is not obtrusive.

Ms. Hill said that there is ongoing dialogue.  Neighborhood and hospital representatives meet quarterly.  Some lighting issues have been addressed.  The big problem is that the residents thought that they were protected and they were not.  The language in the special permit is too vague, and it is difficult to figure out how to get enforcement.

Councillor Davis said that perhaps it is time to take the regulation of lighting to a more sophisticated level of establishing quantifiable requirements, in a fashion similar to the way that the Noise Ordinance has evolved to include more measurable standards.

John Sheff, 12 Inman Street, stated that he is an amateur astronomer.  He belongs to the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston and works for the Harvard Observatory.  He also gives talks on the information from the NASA space centers.  He said that no one can see the Milky Way from Cambridge.  Many people have asked him why we can no longer see the stars.

Glenn Heinmiller, 84 Sherman Street, lighting designer, suggested reducing energy waste in street lights by retrofitting the street lights to a lower wattage.  Twice as bright is not twice as good.  For example, street lights along Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard Square and Arlington could be dimmer without significantly impacting safety or visibility.  He submitted a letter and attached material on "EnviroSmart" streetlights being used in the City of Calgary, Alberta, Canada (Attachment 2).  In response to a question from Mr. Heinmiller, Mr. Fernandes agreed that there are areas of Cambridge that are over-lit, but said that most of the calls he gets are requests to increase the amount of light.

Councillor Davis said that she is very concerned about the late night lighting of parks like Donnelly Field, and asked whether the lighting in those fields could be reduced.  Mr. Fernandes said that the lights on three poles are kept on.  There is a need for up-lighting in baseball fields so that players can see the ball in the air.  There also is a safety issue at that field, and many neighbors have requested that there be lights on at night. It might be possible to place some additional lights lower on the polls to serve as the night lighting when there are no ball games.  Mr. Fernandes said that the biggest obstacle to overcome in trying to reduce the level of lighting is the popular perception that light equals safety.  Mr. Heinmiller said that it is not the amount of light that matters; it is the distribution of the light as well as what overall level of light people are adjusted to.

Mr. Beatty said that there are mechanisms to enable streetlights to be turned off halfway through the night, but there is no half-night rate from NSTAR.  State legislation for a half-night rate is pending. He also suggested asking the police for statistics on nighttime break-ins in the second half of the night. 

Matt Latchford, Cambridge, noted that half-night lighting would make the light bulbs last twice as long.

Cathy Korsgren, 10 Hollis Street, stated that she lives right by the parking lot of St. John's Church, which provides an excellent example of the light pollution problem.  There are security lights three stories up on the building to light both the church and the parking lot.  Last fall they installed 15 foot high bright lights around the parking lot.  Councillor Davis observed that it sounds like there should be a conversation involving the church, the residents and city staff.  Mr. Beatty said that many lights can be retrofit with shields.

Charles Teague, 23 Edmunds Street, described his experience with attempting to get the City's assistance in dealing with security wall pack lighting in particular parking lots near his residence.  In all cases but one, the lights in question are still there.  In all cases, he first contacted the owners and requested that they remove the lights and they declined.  Then he tried the City Electrician, the ISD and a City Councillor.  The only light that he was successful with was an NSTAR light.  Mr. Fernandes was very helpful.  Inspections need to occur at night and ISD does not have anyone who works at night. Mr. Beatty agreed that the issue of enforcement needs careful attention.  He asked whether the police could be used.

Mr. Beatty reminded everyone that Earth Hour will take place on March 28th  from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m.  Everyone is encouraged to turn all of their lights off and look at the sky.  Boston is taking the celebration one step further. 

Councillor Davis asked those present if anyone would be interested in participating in a continuing effort on this subject.  She thanked those present for their attendance and participation.  The meeting was adjourned at 6:33 P.M.

For the Committee,

Councillor Henrietta Davis, Chair

Health and Environment Committee

Attachment 3: Email from Mike Hansen, 2561 Massachusetts Avenue #1


View attached file


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