Guest columnists Rudy Perkins, Anne Perkins and Christopher Riddle: Don’t weaken Amherst’s net-zero bylaw

  • In this 2017 file photo, a group of people who are members of Mothers Out Front Amherst greet people as they arrive for an Amherst Town Meeting to thank them and celebrate being the first town in the nation to mandate zero-energy municipal buildings. Gazette file photo

Published: 3/9/2022 5:00:43 PM
Modified: 3/9/2022 5:00:10 PM

One of Amherst’s most important measures to fight climate change and advance the town’s climate goals, our path-breaking Zero Energy (net-zero) bylaw, is at risk of being weakened.

The net-zero bylaw requires large new municipal building projects in Amherst to be designed with high energy efficiency and renewable energy systems, such as solar panels, to supply all of the building’s energy. This bylaw was expressly enacted “to help counter and prevent the effects of global climate change.”

Before the first municipal building to be built under the town’s net-zero bylaw, the planned new Amherst elementary school, can even get off the ground, three Amherst town councilors suggested the council should explore rewriting the bylaw.

At the Feb. 28 special Town Council meeting on the school, Council President Lynn Griesemer said it was the “responsibility of the Town Council to determine if we need to at some point look at the Net Zero Energy Bylaw as it relates to this project.” Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke pointedly asked, “Should we be looking at modifying the Net Zero . . . Bylaw to allow us a little more leeway depending on costs? Do we have . . . that leeway already in the bylaw, or do we need modifications to that bylaw, and do we need to be working on them now?”

Councilor Cathy Schoen noted the bylaw’s “restrictions on what we have to own ourselves versus [where] we can enter purchasing agreements. So . . . I think we might want to at a subcommittee level, raise questions and bring them back to the Council, because we [the School Building subcommittee] wouldn’t be able to change the bylaw ...”

Changing the net-zero bylaw, again, especially for any leeway to excuse the school from its provisions, would be a serious climate mistake. It would also show bad faith to climate advocates who painstakingly negotiated a cost-conscious revision of the bylaw with town officials for the 2018 Town Meeting (then still the legislative body for Amherst). That 2018 compromise revision was enacted by an overwhelming vote of 149-2, with only five abstentions.

The town originally passed a net-zero bylaw in 2017. But some Select Board members (two of whom sit on Amherst’s Town Council) continued to raise cost and other concerns about the bylaw, and in a spirit of compromise, zero energy advocates agreed to negotiate a revision to the bylaw.

Four town critics of the 2017 bylaw, including now-Council President Griesemer, met with four representatives of the zero-energy advocates, including the three of us. Over nine meetings, the group hammered out compromise changes to the bylaw to propose to the Spring 2018 Town Meeting. The main changes to the bylaw were explained in a 2018 report to Town Meeting.

Compromises from the zero-energy advocates’ side included an agreement to raise the project cost threshold before the bylaw would apply (from $1 million to $2 million), and to impose a 10% renewable energy systems cost cap, when compared to the bylaw-defined Total Project Cost without the renewable energy systems.

We were criticized by some in the environmental community for negotiating these concessions. But we felt there were important climate gains in the compromise revision.

For example, one important change was language explicitly requiring “highly efficient standards to minimize the Project’s need for energy, and incorporating Renewable Energy Systems with enough capacity to supply the energy needed.” Another, as the 2018 report to Town Meeting explained, was to require those renewable systems to be town-owned, at least up to the 10% cost cap.

Since setting a specific numeric bylaw standard for building energy efficiency would have been a challenge for the variety of possible buildings covered, the town ownership provision had the important function of incentivizing high energy efficiency, because unnecessary energy use would have a direct cost to the town in the number of solar panels it would have to purchase for the project. That provision also fostered municipally-owned solar, rather than solar owned by large solar corporations.

We all knew that fighting climate change would likely require upfront investments, including for building projects. The great thing about these investments is that they pay for themselves over time, in reduced energy costs and averted climate impacts.

There was wisdom in committing to net zero in 2017, and again in 2018. If you agree with that wisdom, tell Town Council at Don’t Weaken the Net Zero Bylaw.

Anne Perkins, Rudy Perkins (no relation) and Christopher Riddle live in Amherst.
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