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Several Helena residents came to a city commission meeting Wednesday to vent their frustrations over an ongoing effort to replace city streetlights with brighter, high-energy lighting.

Helena is part of a NorthWestern Energy pilot program to replace 43,000 energy-inefficient, high-pressure sodium lights with energy-efficient LED lights that cast a brighter glow, at no cost to the city.

The lights have already been replaced in some Helena neighborhoods, and some Helena residents said the increased brightness is a detriment to the city's ambiance and their comfort.

Over a dozen Helenans commented at the administrative meeting, saying the new lights are too invasive and damage the historical feeling of Helena's neighborhoods.

"There are so many choices available," Pat Beck said about the possible lights NorthWestern is considering.

The commenters all favored switching to LED lights, but found the sheer brightness of these particular LEDs off-putting.

"They shine right in my window," Susan Smith said. "All of my windows are lit up from front to back ... you can see daylight all night long."

Steve Schmitt, NorthWestern Energy's superintendent of construction, said the company's main concern was that the high-pressure sodium lights are being phased out of production. Schmitt said the LED lights NorthWestern Energy selected are actually much warmer than the industry pattern. 

"We're bucking the trend," Schmitt said.

He also said there was a possibility the lights could be warmer. 

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Montana State Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, asked if the commission would take a "comprehensive look at our lighting."

Dunwell said a constituent told her a lack of lights around the person's Helena home created a public safety hazard. 

Resident Paul Puccini asked the commission to suspend the light change for a year to allow for more citizen feedback. 

"There are too many indecisions; too many questions that haven't been answered," Puccini said. 

Because the lights are being paid for out of NorthWestern's capital budget, any change and cost difference would show up in Montanans' electric bills, said Howard Skjervem, NorthWestern Energy manager of community relations. 

Jo Dee Black, a NorthWestern Energy spokesperson, said the company was taking the feedback into consideration.

"Wednesday’s city of Helena’s administrative meeting is the first time we’ve heard some of these concerns, even after we solicited feedback after a six-month demonstration site of LED streetlights in Helena," Black said. "We will look into the concerns expressed and appreciate this new feedback."

Black said some of the concerns NorthWestern fielded from Helena citizens were new and some were similar to concerns raised during the first run of the project in Billings. 

"We're considering all the feedback and thank people for their feedback as well," Black said.

The Helena City Commission will revisit the issue later this summer, according to City Manager Ana Cortez.

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Crime and Health Reporter

Crime and health reporter for the Helena Independent Record.

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