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Turned off by darkened streetlights

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent /
January 5, 2012

In recent years, some communities south of Boston have turned off streetlights, or have considered doing so, as officials scour budgets for cash to cover rising expenses. But such measures have often met with resistance from homeowners who don’t want to be left in the dark.

Stoughton and Pembroke talked about turning off streetlights, then dismissed the idea. Easton shut off lights with little public opposition. But in neighboring Mansfield, which turned off its lights two years ago, officials have recently been barraged with complaints over dark streets.

Towns that decide to trim streetlight accounts generally turn off every other light on most streets, but leave lights on at intersections, curves, and dead ends. Such was the system used by Easton and also in Mansfield in 2009.

In Easton, residents have adjusted to fewer lights and the town has been able to save on utility costs, according to Selectwoman Colleen Corona.

“We’ve only had a few phone calls about it from neighborhoods, and they have the option of paying to keep the lights on,’’ Corona said. “The decision was tough, but we had significant enough savings to make it worthwhile.’’

Dark streets in Mansfield, however, have prompted a bombardment of calls from irate homeowners demanding that lights shut off be relit, broken streetlights repaired, and dead bulbs replaced.

Mansfield leaders are currently repairing and replacing bulbs, but whether they’ll reverse the two-year-old policy that has kept more than 1,000 streetlights dark is yet to be decided.

Selectmen shut off 1,068 of the town’s 2,891 streetlights at the urging of public works director Lee Azinheira. “It was either that or lose employees,’’ Azinheira said. The shutdown has saved the town $80,000 annually.

Azinheira contends Mansfield is still better lit than its neighbors. “Easton has 6.5 streetlights per mile, while we have 12.8 even after the reduction.’’

But Bungay Road resident Gail Geagan said streetlights are a public safety issue. “Our road is pitch-dark,’’ she said. “This road is a cut-through, and cars speed through here.’’

Geagan and her husband, Robert, even offered to pay the cost of relighting their streetlamp, but were told that’s not allowed in Mansfield.

Mansfield Selectman Olivier Koslowski said allowing residents with dark streetlights to pay to power them would lead to disputes.

“It will end up with people saying ‘Why do I have to pay for the light when the guy down the street doesn’t,’ ’’ he said.

The Geagans were encouraged when a crew recently shored up the pole in front of their house. “But then they took the streetlight off,’’ Geagan said. “Even if the town decides to turn on all the lights, we’ll be out of luck because our light’s gone.’’

Mill Street resident and former selectman Amos Robinson brought the streetlight issue to the forefront when he spoke during a televised selectmen’s meeting about burned-out lights.

“You can go for a quarter of a mile with no streetlights on at all,’’ he said. “When the Southeastern Regional bus drops the children off, it’s dark out there.’’

Mansfield Municipal Electric Department director Gary Babin said crews are checking lights and fixing them. “As of Dec. 27, we identified 127 lights that were burned out or broken,’’ he said.

Some residents want the municipal electric department to tap its $17 million fund to power local streetlights. But Babin said that’s against the law. “By state statute, utility companies aren’t allowed to pay for streetlights.’’

The electric department pays the town $480,000 annually in lieu of taxes. While the amount could be raised so the municipal budget could cover all streetlights, Babin said, “That’s a policy decision for the Board of Selectmen.’’

Mansfield Town Manager William Ross said the selectmen, who serve as light commissioners, are expected to discuss relighting all streetlights at their January meeting. “I can’t really say what their decision will be at this point,’’ Ross said.

Koslowski said the board will wait for public reaction to the effort to replace light bulbs. “We’ll have to see if that does the trick or if folks want them all back on,’’ he said.

Elsewhere, after Milton officials in 2009 approved a plan to shut down some streetlights, public outcry was immediate as streets began to go dark, and town leaders abandoned the plan and decided on a different course.

“We bought the lights from NStar, and we now maintain them, changing the bulbs in-house,’’ said Town Administrator Kevin Mearn. “Our cost is minimal since all we pay for is the electricity, and the DPW is looking at putting in LED lights.’’

In Stoughton, public works Superintendent John Batchelder said officials discussed a light shutdown briefly, “but when we saw what happened in Milton, we didn’t want to go that route.’’ Like Milton, Stoughton ultimately purchased the streetlights from the utility company and has kept them all lit.

“We save money by lowering the watts,’’ Batchelder said. “The 400-watt bulbs have been switched for 200, and the 100 and 70 watts are now 50.’’

The town of Halifax shut down several streetlights in the 1990s, but has since turned them all back on, said Town Administrator Charlie Seelig.

The Halifax Planning Board now sets the streetlight requirement for new subdivisions, and once the streets are accepted by the town, the municipal budget covers the cost. If homeowners want more lights, they must secure Town Meeting approval for the expense. Seelig said the streetlight budget is relatively small, at $22,000 annually.

Christine Legere can be reached at