Amherst Town Meeting Votes to Bar Fossil Fuels In Major New Municipal Buildings, Chooses to Sidestep Select Board

The phrase “Amherst Town Meeting” and “exciting” aren’t often used in the same sentence, and yet, there was nail-biting last night in this academic community, where most people you meet say they are working on at least ONE book.

Echoing Tuesday’s strong showing by progressives in state and local elections nationally, Town Meeting passed a potentially precedent-setting pro-environment “Net Zero” energy bylaw. It requires that new municipal buildings costing $1 million or more generate at least as much energy as they draw, through use of solar, wind, and geothermal systems. It bans burning of fossil fuels except by emergency generators.  Although there are no penalties set for town departments that violate the bylaw, it requires that the administrator of a non-compliant building or addition “continue to work toward compliance every year until it is compliant.”

A separate resolution calling upon Amherst to move quickly toward the goal of “100 Percent Renewable Energy,” passed unanimously after a presentation by Andra Rose, coordinator of Amherst’s Mothers Out Front chapter.

Town Meeting has seen an influx of new members in last few years, including elementary school parents who sought seats amid controversy over a since-failed school building/consolidation project. The dialogue last night was energetic, and Town Meeting also passed a bylaw creating an Advisory Committee, to analyze the numerous complicated proposals voted on at each session, in light of potential impacts on Amherst’s public safety, populations, neighborhoods, culture and history.

Chris Riddle of Kuhn Riddle Architects, also known as the man of the hour.

The Net Zero energy bylaw, which exempted a pending major renovation of the Jones Library,  passed with 123 Yes votes, 54 No votes, and 9 abstentions, despite strong opposition from the Select Board, which wanted time to analyze and revise the bylaw.  Barring any attempt at reversal, Net Zero will be required in construction of upcoming projects, including renovation or replacement of the Fort River Elementary School, and a long-awaited new fire station and Department of Public Works building.

There were impassioned speeches from the floor by both Town Meeting veterans and newer members.

“Our earth is burning up,” said Gerry Weiss of Precinct 8, adding that society has been “kicking the can down the road” for too long when it comes to slowing climate change, and environmental catastrophes are the result. “If not now, when?” he asked.

The Net Zero article was sought by Mothers Out Front and Climate Action Now, which united in the Amherst Zero Energy Public Working Group. Amherst resident Lee Jennings, a petitioner, said Amherst must move beyond clean energy goals to actions. “We need to assure that all new town construction is part of the solution, not the problem,” she said.

The  group included architect Christopher Riddle of Precinct 2. He was project manager for the new, sustainable Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst. With an insider’s knowledge and several colorful slides, Riddle proceeded to, as some said later, knock it out of the park.

The up-front price tag for building with alternative energy systems might be higher, Riddle said, but is not significant when weighed against reduced operating costs, which yield “a huge bonus that lasts the life of the building.”

“An expense with a return is what is known as an investment,” Riddle said.

Andrew Steinberg of the Select Board said his board is committed to the underlying goals of the Net Zero bylaw,  but sees potential problems with the bylaw as written. “We think we can probably achieve it with many of our buildings in the future … (but) we’re concerned about the DPW and Fire Station,” he said. The bylaw “has the potential for some very deep consequences for this community.”

Steinberg moved for the article to be referred to the Select Board, which he said would review it and bring forward a more considered version at the spring Town Meeting session.

Riddle noted that if in March, Amherst residents vote to replace Town Meeting and the Select Board with a 13-member Town Council, Town Meeting’s powers would be curtailed, and then ultimately ended. (If the proposed local government change passes, a Town Council would take office in December 2018.)

“I thought it would be good to get this on the books,” Riddle said.

The motion to refer to the Select Board ultimately failed, with 73 Yes votes, 112 No votes, and 2 abstentions.

The Spectator of Amherst appreciates your comments and clarifications, and welcomes submission of well-reasoned opinion columns. This article may be updated with additional information. Marla Goldberg-Jamate is a Precinct 7 Town Meeting member, and voted in favor of the above-mentioned 100 Percent Renewable Energy, Net Zero, and Advisory Committee articles yesterday. 




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