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Responding to Outcry, County Makes Streetlight Changes

Aside from the Columbia Pike streetcar, one of the most controversial issues among Arlington residents may be that of LED streetlights. The light shone from the new streetlights is ugly and overly bright, say many in neighborhoods that have had them installed.

It’s enough of a hot-button issue to get dozens of residents from around Arlington to gather outside at 9:30 on a drizzly Tuesday night to discuss the finer points of Light Emitting Diode technology with County Board members and staff.

Arlington County began installing LED streetlights in the mid-2000s, with the intention of reducing energy and maintenance costs. The county says the new bulbs use about 75 percent less power than traditional sodium-vapor streetlights (currently saving $400,000 per year) and last about 8 times longer (3 years vs. up to 25 years).

Installation of the lights ramped up in 2010, with the goal of replacing nearly all county-owned streetlights by 2016. Though more efficient and, some may argue, more attractive than the reddish hue of traditional streetlights, the county has received a raft of complaints from those who live near the new streetlights in residential neighborhoods.

“It’s just offensively bright,” said Madison Manor resident Diane Beattie. “It really is like living in a parking lot.”

“In general we think energy savings is good, we’re not against that, but it’s the intensity and the color, which you can see in your living room,” said Arlington Village resident Mary Pat McNulty, who came out Tuesday night to learn more and to voice her concerns.

The bluish tint from the new streetlights is “just plain ugly,” said fellow Arlington Village resident Jan Kennemer, who added that exposure to blue wavelengths at night has been linked to health problems, including cancer and diabetes.

“It’s just ridiculous to have that light so close to your house,” Kennemer said. “There’s nothing you can do short of boarding up your windows to keep the light out.”

Arlington County officials say they’ve heard the complaints, and they’ve been working on solutions. Among them: dimmers which gradually dim the LED bulbs after sunset, “eyebrows” that shield some of the light output on the side adjacent to homes, and filters that help to diffuse the light and reduce glare.

“There are issues that we recognize and we have to make adjustments,” said County Board Chair Walter Tejada, who led the walking tour of streetlights in the Virginia Square area on Tuesday, along with fellow Board members Mary Hynes and Libby Garvey.

“It’s a change,” acknowledged Hynes. “The quality of the light is different, and we’ve been concerned about how much light it’s throwing onto houses. Staff has made a number of modifications… but we’re still hearing from people in certain places.”

Now that the county has completed most of the LED installations along the Metro corridors, crews are increasingly performing conversions in neighborhoods. The neighborhood lights are, by default, half as bright as those along the commercial corridors, where there have been fewer complaints. Still, Hynes says, it’s clear which neighborhood is getting the new streetlights by the complaints that start coming in.

“We know when a new neighborhood is going up,” she said. “I think this an issue of how we manage the transition from the commercial corridors into the neighborhoods.”

Kennemer and McNulty have been lobbying, thus far unsuccessfully, to convince the county to use 3500K LED bulbs, which would cast a warmer tint than the current 5500K bulbs, which cast a tint that’s bluer and more akin to daylight.

Beattie, the Madison Manor resident, said she’s glad the county has been listening to the complaints — but thinks additional adjustments might be necessary.

“They’re being responsive, so that’s helpful, but it’s a matter of tweaking,” she said.

Residents who have concerns about LED streetlights are being encouraged to reach out to a designated point of contact: Arlington streetlight engineer Santosh Neupane, who can be reached at 703-228-0778 or [email protected]

Arlington officials note, however, that county-owned streetlights only account for about a third of all streetlights in Arlington. Dominion owns 11,500 streetlights in Arlington, for which the county pays the electric bill, while the county owns about 5,200 streetlights.

Dominion has been doing its own LED streetlight conversion. The county will pass along any complaints about Dominion-owned lights to the power company, officials said.

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