Support Uneven for Establishing Energy District

By IAN FEIN

Edgartown selectmen are poised to play spoiler in an Islandwide effort to put an energy conservation proposal before Vineyard voters this spring.

At their meeting last week, the selectmen all but announced that they would not place on the annual town meeting warrant a proposed article that would start the process of creating an Islandwide energy conservation district of critical planning concern (DCPC).

At the time, selectmen cited the need for a public hearing, and said they had forwarded the concept on to town land use boards for consideration.

The Edgartown planning board, however, sent a letter back to selectmen this week, saying they support the proposal and recommending that selectmen add the article to the April town meeting warrant. The board further noted that it will hold a public hearing on the energy DCPC concept on March 6.

The regional initiative also received a strong consensus of approval last week from members of a work group examining energy issues for the Island Plan, a comprehensive planning effort underway at the Martha's Vineyard Commission. The group is composed of about a dozen Island residents, a number of whom are from Edgartown. At least two Edgartown members said this week they were disappointed that their selectmen will not allow voters a chance to discuss the concept this spring.

Work group member Paul Pimentel of Edgartown said he would have circulated a citizen's petition to get the article on the town meeting warrant, had he known that selectmen would balk on the issue.

"We as a town should absolutely be talking about this at town meeting," said Mr. Pimentel, who has spent his entire career working in the energy field. "It is an item of critical and timely importance, and it is something that I think represents a long-term interest for town. If we don't start to address this, our energy costs are going to go out of sight."

The purpose of the energy overlay district would be to lower Vineyard carbon emissions and foster energy independence by regulating consumption and promoting sources of renewable energy. The 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. 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.

In a telephone interview this week, Edgartown selectman Margaret Serpa would not share her personal opinion of the DCPC concept. She repeatedly said that, even given the planning board recommendation, she did not know whether the article would make it onto the warrant.

Selectman Arthur Smadbeck, sharing the concern of a number of Island selectmen who warn that the concept is too vague to merit consideration at this time, said he would not vote to put the energy proposal before voters this spring.

Because the energy DCPC would be the 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.

"I'd like to know at the end of the day how much electricity we are going to reduce, and how much it is going to cost to do that. At this point, I don't even think the proper questions have been framed yet," Mr. Smadbeck said yesterday.

"Before doing anything and going off half-cocked, we have to know the costs, so we can present something that makes sense," he said. "You just can't ask people to vote for a pig in poke."

Selectmen chairman Michael Donaroma was off-Island and not available for comment.

While the energy DCPC article has made it onto town meeting warrants in Aquinnah, Tisbury and West Tisbury, selectmen in Oak Bluffs and Chilmark have not yet decided whether they will allow voters to discuss the issue this spring. Chilmark selectmen are exploring whether they can pursue energy tax credits on the town level, as opposed to joining the Islandwide initiative, and Oak Bluffs selectmen will discuss the energy district next week.

The Vineyard DCPC proposal comes as public awareness about climate change is reaching an all-time high. The lack of support from Island selectmen stands in stark contrast to a growing consensus among political leaders elsewhere that immediate action must be taken to address the energy issue.

A landmark report released last Friday by an international panel of scientists declared for the first time that global warming was "unequivocal," and that human activity was more than 90 per cent certain to be the primary cause.

The panel, made up of hundreds of scientists convened by the United Nations and widely accepted as the authoritative voice on climate change, found that effects of climate change are already evident across the globe, and that extreme events - such as heat waves and heavy precipitation - are very likely to continue and become more frequent in the decades ahead.

The release of the report was heralded by many as bringing an end to the debate about global warming. Even top officials in the Bush administration, who long avoided declarative statements on the topic, now refer to climate change as fact.

But not some of the political leaders on Martha's Vineyard.

Mrs. Serpa this week refused to answer a question about whether she believed in climate change, while Mr. Smadbeck and Chilmark board of selectmen chairman J.B. Riggs Parker both said they did not feel capable of stating a position on global warming one way or the other.

Aquinnah selectman James Newman, who circulated the energy DCPC proposal among colleagues in mid-December, expressed frustration with the reception it has received from other selectmen.

"I guess there is a lack of belief that there is a real problem here," Mr. Newman said yesterday. "But we're not crying wolf. Everything we've been saying has been substantiated."

With ice caps melting due to increasing global temperatures, the international panel report last week conservatively estimated a sea level rise of seven to 23 inches by the end of the century, and concluded that the oceans will continue to rise for at least 1,000 years. Widely published computer models put much of downtown Edgartown and Katama underwater with three feet of sea level rise.

"Edgartown could be the next Atlantis," Mr. Newman said this week. "I say that tongue in cheek, but it's a reality."