Momentum Builds For Energy District

by IAN FEIN

Island voters this spring will be asked whether they wish to take the Vineyard's energy future into their own hands.

Aquinnah selectman James Newman this week authored a nonbinding referendum for the coming town meeting season aimed at creating an overlay district to promote and regulate energy efficiency and renewable energy across the Island.

The so-called Islandwide Energy Conservation district of critical planning concern (DCPC) would be the first of its kind in Massachusetts, and - if supported by voters this spring - would go on to a formal nomination at the Martha's Vineyard Commission followed by multiple rounds of public review.

The energy DCPC concept was first raised on the Island more than a year ago. But with discussion about climate change and peak oil growing every day, Mr. Newman said it was time to move the Island energy initiative from words into action.

"There's a lot of talk out here about the environment and the impact of greenhouse gases, but we need to do something," Mr. Newman said on Wednesday. "There are other communities in this country that are working on the issue, and for me it's a priority. We live in a fragile environment here on the Island, and we have to act now. It can't wait."

Vineyard Energy Project founder Kate Warner, who in September 2005 presented the energy DCPC concept to every board of selectmen and town planning board on the Island, said this week that the need for energy conservation on the Island was as much an economic as an environmental issue. According to estimates, the overall Island energy bill last year was roughly $65 million, with energy usage and prices steadily rising.

"The enabling legislation of the commission talks not only about preservation of natural beauty and resources, but also about the economy," said Ms. Warner, who is a former commission member. "Because we're at the end of the pipeline and almost all our energy is imported, either by boats or cables running along the ocean floor, energy supply and prices are going to really impact our local economy."

Ms. Warner said Vineyard residents would be remiss not to take advantage of the critical district designation, which allows Island towns - through the special powers of the Martha's Vineyard Commission - to adopt zoning regulations that otherwise would not be permitted under state law. Current Massachusetts building codes and zoning laws do not allow towns to enforce standards above the state level.

"The DCPC designation is a unique tool the Island has at its disposal," Ms. Warner said. "We have this tool that other communities don't have, and it offers us the opportunity to take a more proactive stance for our own future. Given the knowledge that people have today about energy prices and energy supply, I'm really hoping that people will support it."

Though any energy regulations formed under the DCPC would come much later in the process and would be adopted on a town-by-town basis, some possible requirements include more efficient building codes and the creation of an energy credit system that could fund renewable energy projects elsewhere on the Island.

Mr. Newman this fall proposed a zoning bylaw in Aquinnah that would have required new homes over a certain size to include renewable energy sources, such as solar panels or wind turbines, but he decided to abandon that proposal in favor of the Islandwide district after town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport advised him that the single-town bylaw would likely be found invalid. In contrast, Mr. Rappaport has said that he believes the Islandwide energy district is legally enforceable.

Instead of formally nominating the energy district, Mr. Newman is hoping to build consensus by seeking public votes of support this spring. He plans to present the referendum at the next Aquinnah town meeting, most likely in February, and this week sent a copy of the language to selectmen across the Island, asking them to place an article on their annual warrants this spring.

In spring 2005, voters in all six Vineyard towns endorsed a nonbinding energy resolution to work toward becoming a renewable energy Island. Among other things, voters pledged to promote energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources by revising town zoning bylaws and Martha's Vineyard Commission regulations.

Ms. Warner said the Islandwide DCPC is the logical next step in that movement: "This is a great way to get the dialogue started, and to give people a voice to help shape what we do.".

Martha's Vineyard Commission chairman Linda Sibley this week praised Mr. Newman for his inclusiveness in seeking support at the outset of the DCPC consideration, but also noted that voters will have final say on any regulations should they appear as town zoning amendments at the end of the process.

She expected there will be opposition to the scope of the district, but stressed that voters will have local control over regulations in their town.

"Islandwide DCPCs can be extremely threatening to anyone who thinks the commission is too powerful, but it's a misunderstanding of the process," Mrs. Sibley said. "It really empowers the towns."

Speaking for herself, and not for the commission, Mrs. Sibley said she believed the district designation is the best way for the Island to address the critical issue of energy conservation. She noted that the Vineyard is particularly susceptible to energy shortages, and will soon not be able to afford to waste any more of its supply.

"Inefficient energy use is impinging on our valid needs," Mrs. Sibley said. "We can't with our efforts prevent global warming and sea-level rise. But I do think there are good reasons to fear that in the not-too-distant future, we're going to be facing rolling brown-outs and black-outs. And when it comes time for the Vineyard to get its rationed amount of energy on that cold February night, it's going to be frustrating knowing that those mega-mansions are being heated and no one is in them."

Ms. Warner this week also suggested that the energy DCPC could have positive impacts beyond the shores of the Vineyard. Seasonal residents and visitors to the Island may be inspired by the initiative, and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative awarded a grant to the Vineyard Energy Project this year to draft an energy overlay district that may be shared with other communities in the commonwealth.

"It is exciting that they are thinking of this as something that has meaning and is of value to the rest of the state," she said, noting that energy initiatives have to start somewhere in the absence of strong leadership at the federal level. "People are starting on a grassroots level to say, ‘We get that climate change is occurring, we get that peak oil is coming, and we're going to start working on this at the community level,'" Ms. Warner added.

"It's not like we can do nothing," she said. "We're choosing between paying much more for less energy than what we're used to, or shaping a future for ourselves that's as bright as we can make it."