Franklin County tops green-growth goal
Recorder file photo
The Pumping station covered bridge over the Green River was knocked off its abutment during Tropical Storm Irene August 2011 Purchase photo reprints »
Recorder file photo/Peter MacDonald
Workers walk past an array of solar panels in the 2-megawatt solar farm on the former landfill behind the transfer station in Greenfield.
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It sounded like a frighteningly ambitious goal five years ago: siting 2.87 megawatts of renewable electricity production in Franklin County by the end of 2009.
But the region hit the target and went further, siting an estimated 3.18 megawatts of green electricity generators.
What’s more, the county, which also had the goal of siting another 5.9 megawatts by 2020, has already sited 18.8 megawatts worth of renewable power production since the beginning of 2010, say planners for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments.
Those latter achievements, largely due to four major projects — the 0.9-megawatt Berkshire East windmill, the 2-megawatt solar farms at Northfield Mountain and the Greenfield landfill, and Monroe’s 13.5-megawatt portion of the Hoosac Wind project — were among achievements highlighted as meeting the objectives of the county’s Sustainable Master Plan recently.
The draft plan addresses how the region can prepare for its projected growth of 3,500 additional households, an aging population and rising energy costs, with an eye to maintaining its rural character and protecting its natural resources. It will be presented next month in three “open house” gatherings in Greenfield, Orange and Shelburne Falls.
Planners are going over the individual chapters, on housing, transportation, economic development, energy, natural and cultural resources, with an eye toward how towns can best centralize future development close to existing services like public transportation and vacant or under-used industrial sites, thus preserving the county’s rural character while growing.
Among the observations planners made at a recent meeting of the Franklin Regional Planning Board was that a key concern in light of predicted climate change is the possibility of more frequent flooding events and the risks that poses from rivers and waterways where village centers have grown up.
“We’re seeing more of a possibility of flooding that could eventually damage our cultural resources,” said land-use planner Mary Praus, pointing to not only historic structures like the Eunice Williams Covered Bridge, which was damaged by Hurricane Irene flooding in Greenfield, but also to town halls, churches, mill buildings and riverfront areas that also are in historic districts around the county.
“It’s a balancing act,” Planning Director Margaret Sloan told the Planning Board as she described how a priority for sustainable housing development and economic development both is to “in-fill” places where there are vacant structures, under-used mill buildings and by adding accessory apartments in existing single-family homes as a way of easing pressure on agricultural land and avoiding sprawl that would add to traffic, increased energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions.
“If we want to in-fill, how do we balance that with potential risk because it might be in a flood prone area?” said Sloan.
If a major constraint to protecting against the added hazards is cost, another obstacle is simply making an inventory of those mostly older structures and sites that are most vulnerable.
“It’s very clear from our public outreach that people want to see new growth around employment centers, in places served by transit,” Sloan said. And yet, she added, “This is a broad overview at the regional level. Each community is going to have its own discussion. This is the framework of things we can do to become more sustainable, encouraging new development in such a way that you can get to work, go shopping or to the doctor without having to get in the car for long distances. We’re looking at opportunities to develop that way. We’re still going to have farms, we’re going to have homes in rural areas. But how are we going to develop the new growth that’s coming?”
Frustrated by plans alone
Board member Tom Miner of Shelburne voiced frustration, though, after years of trying to encourage so-called “smart growth” that protects open space, “so that development is channeled, and not just allowed to spread across the landscape.”
“I’m tired of these plans,” he said. “We talk about all the good things we should do, and it never happens, because the towns won’t enact the zoning that’s needed to make it happen.” Miner said towns lack the “political will to put in zoning regulations that protect the values that are important to them and to residents.”
Sloan added that the state has to enact meaningful zoning reform legislation, which has been filed repeatedly year after year by Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, to enable towns to get away from the state’s zoning statute that encourages “cookie-cutter” development.
Miner’s frustration with the planning exercise wasn’t the only criticism from board members.
Conway representative Joseph Strzegowski also questioned the value of developing renewable-energy projects if they don’t result in shutting down fossil-fuel-burning generators that contribute to climate change.
“If we haven’t said we have to close down a coal plant, we’re sort of in a dream world, because we haven’t made things better. We’ve just produced more power. How do we create a disincentive for the polluting stuff. That’s the tension the energy chapter inevitably has to dance around.”
When the March presentations are scheduled to seek public comments, Sloan said, the draft plan will be made available at local libraries and summary sheets on each of the chapters will be circulated through a variety of outlets.
For now, the chapters are available at the Franklin County of Government website.