Amherst bylaw to mandate zero energy for town buildings

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Published: 11/9/2017 2:10:16 PM

AMHERST — A fire station for South Amherst and a new Department of Public Works headquarters will have to be built as zero-energy buildings, based on a bylaw adopted by Town Meeting Wednesday that supporters believe is the first of its kind in the state.

Despite objections from the Select Board, which asked that it be allowed to study the bylaw, Town Meeting voted 123-54 in favor of mandating new and improved municipal buildings immediately meet the new standard. A zero-energy building is one that produces as much energy as it uses on an annual basis.

“We need it now. Now is the time to do it,” Lydia Vernon-Jones of Precinct 5 said.

“I think we’ve got to do it, and stop waiting,” Gerry Weiss of Precinct 8 said.

While passing the new bylaw, and adopting a resolution calling for Amherst to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, Town Meeting also passed a measure asking the state Legislature, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Gov. Charlie Baker to revise the funding formula for charter schools before allowing expansions or new schools to open.

Select Board member Andy Steinberg said that the money leaving Amherst, which amounted to $3.6 million last year, is undermining the educational goals of the town’s schools.

Amherst is likely the first community in Massachusetts to pass a zero-energy bylaw, according to Anne Perkins, a member of Mothers Out Front.

“We feel really good about this,” Perkins said after the vote.

But the vote came despite a recommendation for more study, which was defeated 112-73.

Lead petitioner Lee Jennings said all new building and additions will have to comply.

“These are highly efficient buildings that produce as much energy as they consume during the course of a year,” Jennings said.

Christopher Riddle of Precinct 2 said there is a 10 percent premium on construction costs to create efficiencies and use renewables in these buildings. But he believes such projects can be done for fire stations and DPWs. The Jones Library project would be exempt, since it is not a town-owned building.

Steinberg spoke against the measure.

“The Select Board supports zero energy as a goal, and we probably think we can achieve it with many buildings in the future,” he said. But, he cautioned, the bylaw could mean needed buildings don’t get built.

Though the bylaw allows the town to continue trying if it fails to achieve zero energy, Chairman Douglas Slaughter said there are significant capital expenses when trying to meet the standard.

Rebekah Demling of Precinct 7 said the unknown consequences prompted her to support more study.

“I want Amherst to be a green community, but I want to do it correctly, not fix things after the fact,” Demling said.

Andra Rose, a Precinct 4 Town Meeting member, said the goal is to move as quickly as possible to local, clean and renewable energy.

She noted that Northampton and Pelham are also interested in making a similar commitment. “When we vote on this resolution today, we will be influencing our neighbors directly,” Rose said.

The communities will do this by pursuing community choice aggregation, or community choice energy.

“Our hope is we’ll be able to green the grid through this method,” Rose said.

Public shade trees

By voice vote, Town Meeting agreed to a bylaw that collects fines for removal of healthy public shade trees.

Public Shade Tree Committee Chairman Henry Lappen said the bylaw ensures that healthy trees are protected, and the town will have money for a good tree canopy. “This ordinance will help give a little more oomph to the policy tree warden Alan Snow uses,” Lappen said.

By a 99-81, Town Meeting established a new advisory committee that will review articles before they come to Town Meeting.

John Hornik of Precinct 7 said the Town Meeting Advisory Committee will be able to provide information on benefits and impacts to special populations, economic groups and the town’s streetscape.

“I think it’s a good idea, it’s worth a shot,” Hornik said.

Though opposed by the Select Board as potentially adding more work to town staff, Meg Gage of Precinct 1 said the committee is consistent with other reforms that serve to improve Town Meeting.

In other business, Town Meeting defeated a moratorium on recreational marijuana shops, which would have not allowed them to open until Jan. 1, 2019, and agreed to the creation of a study committee that will explore regionalization of the town’s elementary schools with Pelham’s elementary school.

Town Meeting resumes Monday with the final three articles, which include a zoning change aimed at making it easier to develop private parking structures downtown and petitions seeking improvements to the North Amherst Library and support for the state’s End of Life Options Act.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at


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