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Afraid of the dark: some residents protest streetlight removal


July 28, 2010
NORTHFIELD — It might not have been a large portion of the population, but approximately 20 people were concerned enough about a proposal for removing some street lights in Northfield that they came to a public hearing on July 20 to make their feelings known.

Wayne Crowley, chairman of the Energy Committee, lead the hearing with maps of the town designating each of the 101 street lights in Northfield currently on the town's electric bill. He explained the Energy Committee was formed two years ago by selectmen and charged with investigating ways the town might save on energy costs. Members of the committee spent several months studying the placement of lights in the community when they learned each one cost the town $110 per year to keep lit. The criteria for removal, Crowley said, was any light not serving a public safety purpose such as illuminating a sidewalk, intersection or fire box. After consultations with police and fire departments, red pins on the map he presented marked poles the committee proposed for removal and white pins represented lights they felt were vital to public safety.

Selectmen Chair Steve Bluhm, invited public comment but cautioned that the proposal was for possible savings and no decision had been made by selectmen to remove any of the lights at this time.

"We'll listen to what you have to say and then somewhere down the road make a decision on if we want to shut any of them off," he said.

The list of possible lights to be removed had been posted on the town's website prior to the hearing. Police Chief Steven Adams handed a revision of that list to Crowley and the selectmen before discussion began, however, requesting 14 of those lights be taken off of the list. After reviewing the initial proposal, Adams went back and looked further into police activity logs and found these 14 lights could help prevent further crime and therefore asked they remain lit.

Debra Mekula was the first resident to voice a protest about turning off lights near her home on Glines Park Road. A light on the corner of the road illuminates a bus stop for students, and she was concerned for safety of the children, especially in winter months when it is still dark in the morning hours.

"My youngest daughter is afraid and has said to me 'Oh Mom, if they turn that light off I'm going to be out there in the dark.' There are other younger children in the neighborhood who are going to be getting that bus, too, and I'm really concerned," Mekula said.

Joe DeMello of Howard Avenue and Ron Dunlop of Cofran Avenue also spoke up about safety matters in their neighborhood. Vandalism is already on the rise in the area, DeMello said, and for the few cents it costs each taxpayer to keep the lights on, he feels it is money well spent. Dunlop noted he had recently had an attempted break-in at his home and shutting off the lights could make his home a bigger target for thieves.

John O'Shaughnessy called it "cheap and petty" to remove the lights and said that "public benefit" was subjective. Deterring crime by illuminating a street was a big public benefit, he said. He felt property values could decline without the security of lights in the town.

Poles remaining lit because they held a firebox would soon be a moot point, said Kevin Waldron. Waldron, a former fire commissioner, advised Crowley that the firebox system was being removed in Tilton and Northfield and boxes will be taken down in the coming months. Chief Stephen Carrier of the Tilton-Northfield Fire Department confirmed Waldron's statement and said several boxes would be removed in the coming weeks with the rest to follow as time allowed.

In response to fears of rising crime without the streetlights, Bluhm said research has shown other towns in the state that cut back on the number of poles have not seen this to be true.

"Meredith removed a third of their lights and saw no increase in crime," he said.

Crowley said another facet the committee has looked at would be to install timers to shut off every other pole along Park Street after midnight. Energy costs could be reduced to $60 or $70 for those lights. The technology is not yet available from Public Service but could be in the future, although he conceded it really wouldn't save the town a lot of money.

"But I'm concerned about our carbon footprint here as well," said Crowley.

Residents encouraged the board to consider keeping the lights on and perhaps finding other ways to save money instead. Selectmen said the list of possible removal sites would be shortened with the new input they received from the police department, and before any decisions are made they will again turn to the residents for their thoughts.

"This may not even happen…we'll have another public hearing on it though. That's the way it should be and will be done," said Bluhm.

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