Opinion: Don’t Weaken Amherst’s Net-Zero Bylaw


Graceland Park / O’Donnell Heights elementary and middle school sit to the right of the old school building. Completed in 2020, it is the second net-zero school building built in Maryland. Photo: Baltimore City Schools

By Rudy Perkins, Anne Perkins and Christopher Riddle

Editor’s note:  This column appeared previously in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Town Council President Lynn Griesemer announced at the recent District 2 forum, her full support for Amherst’s Net Zero Bylaw as it is currently written, for the elementary school building project. she said, “I am personally and strongly committed to the Zero Energy Bylaw and its full implementation for the elementary school project and any other future projects.  I also personally hope we do not have to revise it.  Having said that, I have always assumed we might learn some things as we actually apply it to a real project. The eight of us that “negotiated” the revised bylaw that past Town Meeting tried to anticipate every possible challenge (e.g., too costly, not enough room on site, etc.), but there is always the unknown we learn in applying a new bylaw….My personal goal is to not to change anything and then have a conversation after the implementation of the project to see how the real application worked.”

One of Amherst’s most important measures to fight climate change and advance the town’s climate goals, our path-breaking Zero Energy (net-zero) bylaw, is at risk of being weakened.

The net-zero bylaw requires large new municipal building projects in Amherst to be designed with high energy efficiency and renewable energy systems, such as solar panels, to supply all of the building’s energy. This bylaw was expressly enacted “to help counter and prevent the effects of global climate change.” 

Before the first municipal building to be built under the town’s net-zero bylaw, the planned new Amherst elementary school, can even get off the ground, three Amherst town councilors suggested the council should explore rewriting the bylaw.

At the February 28 special Town Council meeting on the school, Council President Lynn Griesemer said it was the “responsibility of the Town Council to determine if we need to at some point look at the Net Zero Energy Bylaw as it relates to this project.” Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke pointedly asked, “Should we be looking at modifying the Net Zero . . . Bylaw to allow us a little more leeway depending on costs? Do we have . . . that leeway already in the bylaw, or do we need modifications to that bylaw, and do we need to be working on them now?” 

Councilor Cathy Schoen noted the bylaw’s “restrictions on what we have to own ourselves versus [where] we can enter purchasing agreements. So . . . I think we might want to at a subcommittee level, raise questions and bring them back to the Council, because we [the School Building subcommittee] wouldn’t be able to change the bylaw …” 

Changing the net-zero bylaw, again, especially for any leeway to excuse the school from its provisions, would be a serious climate mistake. It would also show bad faith to climate advocates who painstakingly negotiated a cost-conscious revision of the bylaw with town officials for the 2018 Town Meeting (then still the legislative body for Amherst). That 2018 compromise revision was enacted by an overwhelming vote of 149-2, with only five abstentions.

The town originally passed a net-zero bylaw in 2017. But some Select Board members (two of whom sit on Amherst’s Town Council) continued to raise cost and other concerns about the bylaw, and in a spirit of compromise, zero energy advocates agreed to negotiate a revision to the bylaw.

Four town critics of the 2017 bylaw, including now-Council President Griesemer, met with four representatives of the zero-energy advocates, including the three of us. Over nine meetings, the group hammered out compromise changes to the bylaw to propose to the Spring 2018 Town Meeting. The main changes to the bylaw were explained in a 2018 report to Town Meeting. 

Compromises from the zero-energy advocates’ side included an agreement to raise the project cost threshold before the bylaw would apply (from $1 million to $2 million), and to impose a 10% renewable energy systems cost cap, when compared to the bylaw-defined Total Project Cost without the renewable energy systems.

We were criticized by some in the environmental community for negotiating these concessions. But we felt there were important climate gains in the compromise revision.

For example, one important change was language explicitly requiring “highly efficient standards to minimize the Project’s need for energy, and incorporating Renewable Energy Systems with enough capacity to supply the energy needed.” Another, as the 2018 report to Town Meeting explained, was to require those renewable systems to be town-owned, at least up to the 10% cost cap.

Since setting a specific numeric bylaw standard for building energy efficiency would have been a challenge for the variety of possible buildings covered, the town ownership provision had the important function of incentivizing high energy efficiency, because unnecessary energy use would have a direct cost to the town in the number of solar panels it would have to purchase for the project. That provision also fostered municipally-owned solar, rather than solar owned by large solar corporations.

We all knew that fighting climate change would likely require upfront investments, including for building projects. The great thing about these investments is that they pay for themselves over time, in reduced energy costs and averted climate impacts. 

There was wisdom in committing to net zero in 2017, and again in 2018. If you agree with that wisdom, tell Town Council at https://www.amherstma.gov/FormCenter/Town-Council-33/General-Public-Comment-185: Don’t Weaken the Net Zero Bylaw.

Rudy Perkins, Anne Perkins and Christopher Riddle are residents of Amherst

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2 thoughts on “Opinion: Don’t Weaken Amherst’s Net-Zero Bylaw

  1. As I’ve mentioned to Rudy (and to a few members of the ESBC), please don’t ignore the impact of the site choice on energy use: transporting people to and from the school, on school buses or more likely in private cars, will become a large fraction — perhaps the majority — of the energy used in the overall operation of any new school facility, especially if the building itself is — or is nearly — net-zero.

    Besides a pro-forma traffic study, has a detailed investigation been made to compare the Wildwood and Fort River sites for transportation energy use?

    One hopes that the school site will not only encourage a-more-than occasional walker or biker or PVTA bus rider, but might also significantly reduce the transportation energy used.

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