Energy DCPC Gains Support

Annual Town Meeting Initiative to Create Islandwide District for Energy Conservation Moves Ahead Slowly

By IAN FEIN

A first-of-its-kind initiative that would allow the Vineyard to regulate its own energy use is slowly gathering steam.

The proposed Islandwide Energy Conservation district of critical planning concern (DCPC) gained a vote of confidence from the Edgartown planning board on Tuesday, and also this week secured spots on the Tisbury and West Tisbury annual town meeting warrants, ensuring that voters in those towns will weigh in on the concept in the coming months.

It is unclear at this point whether selectmen in every Island town will allow voters to consider the energy DCPC this spring, but Aquinnah selectman James Newman, who circulated the proposal among colleagues in mid-December, expressed hope that the concept would get a full hearing. Aquinnah voters will take up the energy initiative at a special town meeting in March.

"I'm very excited that people are recognizing that there is a real need for us to come up with regulations that are going to mitigate our consumption of fossil fuels," Mr. Newman said this week. "It is my sincere wish that this will be a joint endeavor by all of the towns, because this is a real problem that impacts upon all of us on the Island, as well as the environment."

With climate change and energy independence dominating the political agenda at the state and federal levels, a number of Vineyard officials this week said they felt it was their responsibility to move for action on the local and regional level.

"In this time and era, anything we can do to conserve energy is certainly a desirable thing," Edgartown planning board chairman Alan Wilson said on Wednesday. "We still have some questions about the DCPC, but Edgartown does want to be part of it."

The Island faces a particularly severe energy situation because nearly all of its energy comes by boat or underwater cable. Estimates put the overall Vineyard energy bill last year at roughly $65 million.

The purpose of the energy overlay district would be to foster Island energy independence by regulating consumption and promoting sources of renewable energy. Though no regulations are on the table at this time, some examples of possible steps would be adopting a more efficient building code and requiring solar panels or wind turbines on homes over a certain size.

The critical district designation allows Island towns - through the enabling legislation of the Martha's Vineyard Commission - to adopt land use regulations that otherwise would not be permitted under state law. Current Massachusetts building codes and zoning laws do not afford individual towns much room to regulate their own energy use.

Since they received the energy proposal from Mr. Newman last month, the initial response from Island selectmen has been tepid at best. Some were notably silent on the initiative, others expressed a concern that it was a power grab by the commission, and many said the concept was too vague. At least one selectman conceded that he does not understand the general DCPC regulatory framework.

Because the energy DCPC would be first of its kind - both on the Island and in the commonwealth - a number of procedural and legal questions have been raised, many of which remain unanswered. Chief among the concerns is a provision in the DCPC process that calls for a moratorium on construction permits if the commission formally accepts a district nomination. It is unclear how that provision would apply in an Islandwide energy district, but some town and commission officials are researching the issue and have suggested that the moratorium could be limited or even avoided altogether.

Supporters of the concept say there will be time to address outstanding questions in the coming months, and that selectmen should not preclude an opportunity for voters to discuss the concept at town meeting. Even if approved by voters this spring, the energy initiative would still need to go through a public hearing at the Martha's Vineyard Commission, and any regulations would have come back to the towns for more consideration and another round of town meeting votes.

With a lack of support from selectmen, however, it is not clear whether the proposal will make it onto every town meeting floor this spring. Just last week it appeared as though Tisbury selectmen were going to leave it off their warrant, prompting town resident Peter Cabana to circulate a citizen petition that guaranteed its consideration. The town's representative to the Cape Light Compact and a recently elected member to the Martha's Vineyard Commission, Mr. Cabana took some heat from selectmen at their meeting on Tuesday, but maintained that his efforts were in the public interest.

"All we're doing at this point is saying we're going to talk about this in April. At least now we know it's going to be discussed," Mr. Cabana said on Wednesday. "This will provide a forum where the public can ask and answer questions."

Despite the support of the town energy committee, West Tisbury selectmen also appeared hesitant to place the proposal on the warrant. Town resident and Vineyard Energy Project founder Kate Warner approached the board on Wednesday with a revised article that incorporated some feedback from town and commission officials. Under the new language, if voters approved the concept this spring, selectmen from each town - instead of proceeding directly to a nomination - would appoint three representatives to an Islandwide advisory group that would draft guidelines and proposed regulations for an official nomination.

West Tisbury selectmen agreed to put the revised article on the town meeting warrant, and the new language - with its added round of town involvement - might also assuage concerns of Chilmark selectmen. Board members in Chilmark so far have avoided placing the proposal on their warrant, but suggested they might be willing to support the concept if regulations came from the towns, and were not imposed by the commission.

Despite the vote of confidence from the town planning board this week, the energy initiative at this point appears to face its greatest hurdle in Edgartown. Selectmen took no action on the issue when it came before them earlier this month, passing it on to the town land use boards instead. Town administrator Pamela Dolby said it was unlikely that the proposal will make it onto the warrant this spring, although she would not rule out the possibility.

Oak Bluffs selectmen will discuss their town meeting warrant in mid-February, when town resident and Martha's Vineyard Commission member Richard Toole will present details about the energy proposal to the board.

"The whole idea is to save energy, save environment, and save money - it seems like a win-win-win all the way around," Mr. Toole said of the energy DCPC this week. "Considering that even [President George W.] Bush talked about the need for energy efficiency in his state of the union address this week, voters would probably think we were remiss if we didn't have something about it on the town meeting warrant this spring. It's time to take a pulse - to get a straw vote from townspeople to see how they feel."

Gazette reporter Rachel Nava Rohr contributed to this story.