GROTON -- It has been five years since the Board of Selectmen voted to turn off almost 200 streetlights all over town in a cost-saving measure, and it seems as if no one noticed.
Or almost no one.
"When I moved here in 1999 there were street lamps all along Route 40 from Route 119 to Westford," said said Dianne Bunis, a resident of Lowell Road. "Along Gibbet Hill, there are several sharp curves in the road, and it's dangerous -- there is a guard rail. Continuing on, there's the intersection of Old Dunstable Road, another dangerous point with people pulling out or crossing left across Route 40 to turn on it. Then, as you proceed towards Westford, the road becomes very sharp and narrow and right now is completely unlit. There used to be street lamps along this section from Old Dunstable Road heading towards Westford. There was a lamp at the bottom of my driveway. Now it's gone.
"My son got his license in October of 2011 and, like any parent would be, I was concerned with the situation," said Bunis. "I have been driving for approximately 40 years, grew up in New York, and I am used to driving in bad weather conditions but felt this was dangerous. Even I have a difficult time, and if headlights are in your eyes, it wouldn't take much to hit a tree, the road is so narrow.
"At some point five years ago, the street became darker and I began to notice that street lamps were out until I got to Westford," continued Bunis.
That is because when the lights were ordered turned off, the Electric Light Department took down the fixtures themselves, arms and all.
"All the lights in town that have been turned off have been removed, so if you see a light that isn't on, call the Light Department," said Electric Light Department manager Kevin Kelly. "But light bulbs go out. It's a never-ending maintenance issue. Every light we see out, we fix. Sometimes its a cycling problem that fools drivers. They warm up and come on and then go off again and the driver might drive past while they're on. But if there's a light anywhere that you come across that's not on, please give us a call."
According to Kelly, the town is currently paying for 233 streetlights and counting those paid for privately, the total comes to 562.
"And in the last six months, we've changed 70 bulbs," said Kelly, adding that his department sends out crews twice a year to check for darkened lights.
But because the spotters sometimes miss lights or lights go out between patrols, Kelly urged that anyone noticing a streetlight that is not on to call 978-448-1150 and let the department know so that they can get to it right away. For the convenience of residents, the Electric Light Department office is open every day and Mondays till 7 p.m.
Bunis said she conveyed her concerns to Town Manager Mark Haddad, who told her to report any lights that were not working.
"He told me to write down the street lamps, so as I drove along Route 40 from 119, keeping my eyes on the road and for oncoming traffic, I found it nearly impossible to see the tiny numbers on the posts," said Bunis. "I didn't want to have an accident. The town manager doesn't drive it at night, or I think the town wouldn't have taken down the lights."
Bunis said she returned to Haddad and repeated her concerns.
"I saw him again and asked about them, but to this day, there are still no lights," Bunis said.
Haddad said he has not received any complaints, but added that the selectmen's policy on the streetlight issue has not changed over the years.
"It's the same policy as it's always been," Haddad reported. "If there's a question about turning a streetlight back on, the selectmen can decide to do that or residents can contact the Electric Light Department and have whatever light they want turned back on at their own expense.
"The decision about which streetlights to turn off was based on whether it was on a street corner, or if there were other lights in the vicinity, or if there was an intersection," said Haddad of how selectmen arrived at their decision about which lights should be turned off.
At the time, following a study done by chief of police Donald Palma, it was found that the town had 719 streetlights with another 45 to 50 that had either been removed or were not working.
With that information, all lights that had been deemed safe to turn off have been removed so that every pole in town that still has an arm with a bulb fixture attached should be a working light.
According to chairman Stuart Schulman, the Board of Selectmen have not received any comments or complaints about the lack of lights on the town's roads.
"In fact, at the time we voted to turn some of them off, we held a public hearing on the issue and then waited a few months before proceeding," said Schulman. "And some were eventually turned back on."
That, however, is small comfort to residents such as Bunis.
"Route 40 is a major road with high traffic, including cars, school buses, trucks and commuters that sometimes drive 20 miles per hour over the speed limit," said Bunis. "I used to stand there for the morning and afternoon school bus and couldn't believe how fast cars drove by. The speed limit is posted 35, but I would estimate some cars were going 60. And this was at night, too.
"What we need is more lights along Gibbet Hill (there's only one light), the intersection at Gay Road (there is only one light), Lost Lake Drive and Old Dunstable Road, which is completely unlit from along the curve and narrow part to Westford," insisted Bunis.
"Would it mean higher taxes?" asked Bunis rhetorically. "Well, for the sake of safety, yes. Similar to 119, Route 40 is also a heavily traveled road with a large population of young people and students in town who drive home from sports -- especially in the fall, it is dark at 7 p.m. after a long day. I'd like to see some lights returned. I know I didn't vote for their removal."
"There have not been any complaints and there have not been any accidents or other issues at all," said police Chief Donald Palma of any effects resulting from the removal of the streetlights. "We had requests for probably four to six streetlights turned back on in certain areas and turned on two or three."
Palma cautioned however, that those lights turned back on were done soon after the original vote by selectmen to turn off the lights, before the Electric Department removed the armature and lights from the poles.
At this point, if anyone is interested in returning a streetlight to particular areas, said Palma, they would need to go through the town manager's office and the Board of Selectmen.