Medford council may pull switch on street light use

Street lights could be turned off by the City Council this July and August in a 22-block area of west Medford to save money and inspire stargazing as long as fears for public safety don't scuttle the idea.

The City Council on Thursday agreed to study turning off street lights in residential areas bounded by Columbus Avenue, West Main Street, Jackson Street and Peach Street in a pilot project that could go citywide.

"My comment is — why not," said Councilman John Michaels, who proposed the idea. "We've gotten brighter and brighter, and we can't see the night sky."

Michaels said the idea would save the city money on its utility bill and improve visibility, particularly during the Perseid meteor shower.

Other council members appeared more hesitant about shutting off 30 street lights as part of a pilot project.

Councilman Bob Strosser said he worried about the potential reaction from neighbors, suggesting that many might be fearful of the lack of light in their neighborhoods.

"I am strongly concerned what the residents of that area feel about this," he said.

Councilman Chris Corcoran said, "Public safety is the No. 1 reason for those lights going on."

Council members agreed to continue looking into the idea, but wanted more community outreach and a town hall meeting in west Medford to gauge public reaction before they took any action.

If successful, the project could lead to shutting down many of the city's 6,000 street lights.

Cory Crebbin, public works director, said the city spends about $500,000 to power the lights. If the pilot project works, the city could potentially cut its power bill for street lighting by $250,000 to $300,000 a year, he said.

During the pilot project, lights would be left on at intersections and on high-volume streets, but would be turned off in residential areas. The program would not affect traffic signals.

Crebbin said the cost for his crews to go around the neighborhood and turn off the lights for two months would be about $1,000, not counting mailers and other outreach to the community.

The electricity savings to shut down the lights in the neighborhood would be about $125 a month, he said.

Michaels said a lot of residential areas in the east side of town have very few street lights. If the pilot project works, Michaels said there would be a savings for future developers if the city didn't require as many street lights.

Michaels said fear is a very likely reaction from some residents, and he said the city's action wouldn't prevent homeowners from activating their own lighting systems.

"It is what it is," he said. "It's an experiment."

Tim Doney, deputy police chief, said reactions to shutting off street lights in other areas of the country has been mixed.

He cited a U.S. Department of Justice analysis of street lighting, which he said concluded, "Brighter is not safer."

Street lights give the illusion of safety, but he said it's not clear whether they actually deter crimes.

The Ashland City Council recently rejected installation of street lights along a bike path after 23-year-old David Grubbs was attacked and killed on Nov. 19.

In Ashland, the city determined that street lights would create shadows, allowing people to hide more easily in nearby bushes. The city also found the lights would provide a false sense of security.

However, Doney said he didn't think the 22-block area of west Medford had any more or less crime than other areas of the city.

Without street lights, Doney said Medford might leave many residents feeling more fearful. "There is the perception with lights that you are safer," he said.

In Des Moines, Iowa, several years ago, there was a huge public outcry about turning off street lights, Doney said. "The reality is that crime went down," he said.

In Santa Rosa, Calif., the city estimated it would save $400,000 annually by turning off 4,000 street lights and reducing hours for another 6,000 in 2009.

Doney cautioned that it is always difficult to predict why crime goes down in a particular area.

Doney said most people assume that the better lit an ATM is, the safer they will be. "But some studies suggest you become somewhat of a beacon for those up to nefarious stuff," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email

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