Energy Question Goes to Voters

As Climate Change Takes Over the Conscience of a Nation, Vineyard Towns to Decide Fate of Energy District

By IAN FEIN

When Island residents file into auditoriums next week to conduct the annual business of their towns, voters in three towns will face a common question and a possible turning point.

They will be asked whether they wish to take the Vineyard's energy future into their own hands.

The question comes in the form of a town meeting article seeking support for the creation of an Islandwide energy conservation district. The purpose of the district would be to lower Vineyard carbon emissions and foster energy independence by regulating consumption and promoting sources of renewable energy.

With growing threats from global climate change and the ever-rising costs of oil, supporters of the conservation district say it is a vital measure to protect Vineyard pocketbooks as well as the health of the planet.

"It's an environmental and an economic issue, and I think people are starting to see that connection," said Henry Stephenson, a member of the Tisbury planning board and energy committee. "One of the great costs of living on the Island is energy, and conservation is both the first and most effective way to get a handle on it. We will need to take steps like this, and this seems like a good place to start."

A first-of-its-kind initiative in Massachusetts, the energy district proposal originated in Aquinnah, where voters at a special town meeting last month approved the concept with more than 80 per cent support.

Voters in Oak Bluffs, Tisbury and West Tisbury will take up the question at their annual meetings on Tuesday night, and Chilmark residents will consider the district when they convene their meeting later this month. Edgartown voters will not have the opportunity to weigh in on the idea at their town meeting on Tuesday, because town selectmen, acting against the recommendation of the planning board, decided to leave the energy proposal off their warrant.

Though no town officials have publicly opposed the concept of an Islandwide energy district, a number of Vineyard selectmen expressed concerns when it circulated among towns this winter. They said it was too vague, the process was rushed, and too many questions remained unanswered. Some selectmen said voters should not consider the proposal until more information is available and related planning efforts are complete.

Supporters countered that the article next week would simply begin the process of consideration, and that any future energy regulations would still be subject to public hearings and town meeting votes.

They also asserted that we do not have the luxury of waiting any longer.

"If you listen to what the scientists have been saying, we don't have much time left," said Kate Warner, director of the Vineyard Energy Project and member of the West Tisbury energy committee. "We only have a few years to make some really significant changes."

Dire warnings about global warming are now being confirmed with increasing occurrence and weight.

In a landmark case addressing climate change, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that the Environmental Protection Agency cannot ignore the threat posed by greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles. Because the commonwealth of Massachusetts was the lead plaintiff in the case, the decision hinged largely on whether the state could show a risk of actual and imminent harm from global warming. In the majority opinion released on Monday, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that sea level rise has "already begun to swallow Massachusetts's coastal land."

Meanwhile, today, an international panel of scientists convened by the United Nations was set to release its second in a series of landmark reports that will map out the likely effects of climate change. Widely regarded as the authoritative voice on the issue, the panel is expected to say with high confidence that emissions from human energy consumption are already triggering changes to ecosystems across the planet.

Along with global temperatures, the political climate in this country is starting to warm toward legislation that would curb greenhouse gas emissions.

A nationwide rally will be held next Saturday, April 14, urging the U.S. Congress to take action on the climate change issue. The effort, dubbed Step It Up, will involve more than 1,200 grassroots events spread out across all 50 states. It is expected to be the largest environmental gathering since the original Earth Day in 1970.

At least two such events will be held on the Vineyard next weekend. A group will gather Saturday morning in front of the Wintertide building at Five Corners in Vineyard Haven, while the Vineyard Conservation Society is hosting a 1 p.m. walk at Lucy Vincent Beach in Chilmark to examine effects of the sea on the disappearing shoreline.

Although the Vineyard Conservation Society is not actively advocating for the Islandwide energy district at this time, executive director Brendan O'Neill said the concept aligns with the organization's mission to conserve the Vineyard's natural resources, whether it be land or energy. He applauded the effort and said that local attempts to regulate energy use, as well as events like those planned for next weekend, are indicative of a growing movement across the country.

"You just see this national mood shifting," Mr. O'Neill said this week. "It's these cumulative small events that will signal the seriousness our country has with regard to climate change."

Cong. William Delahunt, who has proposed a renewable energy corridor for his legislative district encompassing the Cape and Islands, agrees that local action will help push through pending climate change bills on both the state and federal level. In an interview at his Washington, D.C., office this winter, the congressman praised those on the Vineyard who backed the energy district proposal, regardless of its outcome.

"That's leadership - that's innovation," Congressman Delahunt said. "When you demonstrate a willingness to tackle an issue on the local level, then the state and federal governments will follow."

Not everyone is convinced.

West Tisbury selectman John Early - a former chairman of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, and also a general contractor who builds some of the larger homes on the Island - called the energy district an intriguing and creative idea, but said that it will likely be a tough sell.

The energy initiative is based on a regulatory tool called a district of critical planning concern (DCPC), a designation that 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 energy district regulations are on the table at this time, one possible example would establish a household energy use allowance. Homeowners who went above the threshold would then pay into a fund for energy efficiency or renewable energy projects elsewhere on the Island.

Mr. Early noted that the energy district would be unlike any other before it.

"It goes beyond the usual purview of a DCPC. It's coming into people's houses, sort of, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I just wonder how the guidelines are going to be structured in a way that they will be acceptable and workable," he said. "When you're dealing with setbacks from wetlands, that's pretty easy to define and delineate. But when you're talking about energy, it's harder to monitor and regulate."

That does not mean, however, that Mr. Early is not willing to address the threats posed by climate change.

"It's real," he said yesterday, pointing to the front page of the Boston Globe, which showed a visual simulation of flooding from sea level rise that put much of the Boston metropolitan area underwater. "Unfortunately, it's extremely political right now."

He agreed with others that any meaningful change in energy use will have to start on the local level. The Island's longest-sitting selectman who steps down next after 30 years on the West Tisbury board, Mr. Early said he is optimistic that the Vineyard will step to the plate on the issue.

"This is something that's got to be bottom-up, as opposed to top-down. Because otherwise we're going to be waiting years for any administration to do anything meaningful on this," he said.

"But we can deal with our own side of the street here on the Vineyard, which we have already shown on a number of other issues," Mr. Early added. "With the remarkable and unique tools of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, and our history of spirit and cooperation among the six towns on the Island, I think we can accomplish anything."