The city of Monterey might have to turn down the lights. Monterey County Superior Court Judge Lydia Villarreal ruled Dec. 20 that the city violated both the California Environmental Quality Act and the Brown Act when it started to install energy-efficient LED streetlights in 2009.
A suit was brought against the city in 2012 by a group of residents calling themselves Turn Down The Lights, who claimed the LED bulbs were significantly brighter than the ones they replaced, and that the city had failed to conduct an environmental review before making the change.
“The judge’s decision is an important one,” says Molly Erickson, an attorney who represents Turn Down The Lights. “It addresses the issues of public notice and citizen participation when it comes to environmental impacts.”
Erickson also notes the June 2016 statement issued by the the American Medical Association warning of adverse consequences of blue-rich LEDs that increases nighttime glare and reduce the sleep-hormone melatonin, which can lead to sleep problems.
Turn Down The Lights is not opposed to LEDs and energy-efficient lighting, Erickson says, but the group believes that there are different LED formats and lighting temperatures a proper review would have likely found more appropriate.
The city of Monterey had claimed the new lights and fixtures were exempt from CEQA, which the judge found to be incorrect. In the process of litigation, the city was also found to be in violation of the Brown Act.
“[T]he city of Monterey’s agenda omitted key information concerning characteristics with potential environmental impacts,” Villarreal wrote in her intended decision.
And because the city's agenda failed to show officials were treating the lighting change as exempt from CEQA, “It violated the Brown Act,” the judge concluded.
As of July 2016, the city of Monterey had saved roughly $70,000 annually in energy bills since 2012 by switching to LED streetlights. Yet, during that same time the city incurred $80,000 in legal bills fighting Turn Down The Lights in court. Having lost the preliminary ruling, the city will likely be on the hook for the plaintiff's legal fees too.
The Monterey City Council will consider the city’s options—which could include filing an appeal—in closed session at the Jan. 17 meeting.
Villarreal’s final decision, expected in the coming months, will likely require the city of Monterey to conduct public environmental reviews for the LED lights installed in 2012 and prior.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify the city of Monterey has saved roughly $70,000 a year since 2012, not $70,000 since 2012 through its installation of LED streetlights.