Opinion: How Local Climate Activists Got Amherst A Zero Energy School
Local & Green
The following column appeared previously in the print edition of the Amherst Bulletin.
Climate activists are facing political fights in every city and town but they persist because they know that this is the front line in the battle for our future. Persistence is how we win.
So how did climate activists accomplish the fight for a zero energy school in Amherst and who are the activists who accomplished it? Let’s look at the history.
2017 Town Meeting Adoption Of Zero Energy Building Bylaw
In 2017, anticipating a long list of upcoming new and renovated town building projects, the Amherst Zero Energy Public Buildings Working Group of Mothers out Front (MOF) and Climate Action Now (ZE Working Group) brought a bylaw proposal to Town Meeting. The working group consisted of MOF leader Andra Rose, former contractor Anne Perkins, architect Chris Riddle and landscape architect Lee Jennings, lawyer Rudy Perkins and activists Lydia Vernon Jones, Kathy Nelson, and myself.
On November 8, 2017 Amherst Town Meeting voted 123 to 54 to become the first municipality in the nation to mandate that all new municipal buildings and additions costing over one million dollars be “zero energy”, meaning that they produce as much energy as they use over the course of a year. The ZE Working Group, represented by Chris Riddle and Lee Jennings, presented slides to make their case and Town Meeting members spoke with passion about the need to curb climate change.
The measure passed despite strong opposition from the Select Board. Andrew Steinberg of the Select Board saw potential problems with the bylaw as written and stated that it “has the potential for some very deep consequences for this community.” He moved for the article to be referred back to the Select Board for further review and revision. However, Town Meeting members knew that it might be the last opportunity for them to vote on it, since residents were to vote in March 2018 on a change of government.
The motion to refer to the Select Board failed, 73 to 112, with 2 abstentions. Immediately following, Town Meeting voted to enact the Bylaw.
2018 Grassroots Outreach And Education Campaign
After the vote, the ZE Working Group set to work organizing presentations on zero energy buildings, renewable energy and energy efficiency. The purpose was to educate town officials, town meeting members, town employees, and taxpayers on how we will make our towns 100% Renewable, including how to get new buildings to zero without undue expense.
2018 Zero Energy Compromise Bylaw
The following year, the bylaw was replaced by one that was slightly less stringent. Town Meeting members overwhelmingly agreed to a compromise bylaw that would give more flexibility to the Town Manager and town staff in how they meet the bylaw’s goal of having new town buildings produce as much energy as they use.
An official town working group made up of the manager, members of the Select Board, the DPW/Fire Station Advisory Committee, and the ZE Working Group had met to create a revised bylaw that maintained the integrity of the original. The ZE Working Group garnered support for the new version via a letter explaining the changes and asking Town Meeting members to pledge support.
The revised bylaw continues to apply to all new buildings and additions costing over $2 million, built by and for the town. It requires that renewable energy supply all of the building’s energy needs annually, with some minor exceptions, and that, for the most part, no fossil fuels may be burned for building energy.
2023 Climate Activist Support For The School Vote
Other vocal allies of the ZE Working Group in support of the zero energy school have been school advocates Toni Cunningham and Maria Kopicki, former Fort River Principal Russ Vernon-Jones, and most recently, members of the Elementary School Building Committee and especially its Chair, Councilor Cathy Schoen. Other climate organizations joined forces to support the May 2 vote, including the Energy and Climate Action Committee, the Amherst Climate Justice Alliance, consisting of 12 local climate groups, and the League of Women Voters.
Recent Threats To The Zero Energy Bylaw
There were several points in the last couple of years where the bylaw was potentially under attack, because of the perceived upfront costs. The ZE Working Group kept an eye on the school building committee meetings and successfully protected the bylaw.
In our attempt to heal our divisions, let’s remember that we all worked together to bring the school project to fruition and give thanks to all those who contributed. It is the persistence of our local climate activists that will make our new zero energy elementary school a model for the Commonwealth.
Darcy DuMont is a founding member of Zero Waste Amherst, Local Energy Advocates of Western MA, the Amherst Climate Justice Alliance, and a former member of the Zero Energy Public Building Working Group.
5 thoughts on “Opinion: How Local Climate Activists Got Amherst A Zero Energy School”
This is fantastic! Now if only we could have protected bike lanes and passable sidewalks as it’s not going to be zero energy to get all of these redistricted children to school when everyone is driving all over town.
Hear, hear, Lynn!
How about organizing “walking school buses” for the youngest students, and “biking buddies” for the older ones?
Is it too much to expect “self-transportation” exercise in the morning and afternoon for as many kids as possible?
I’m reminded of the old adage: “There’s no limit to what can be accomplished if one doesn’t care who gets the credit.”
I couldn’t agree more, Lynn! I have been trying to advocate for improved bike/pedestrian access and focus at both the School Building Committee and with town staff and members of the Transportation Advisory Committee, for a holistic approach to improve bike and pedestrian access to Fort River school in advance of the new school opening in fall 2026. I think it could benefit from having a champion or a group of people to work on this, potentially connecting with the Energy and Climate Action Committee and also parents/guardians/school staff interested in pursuing Safe Routes To School funding.
Unrelated to the school project per se, there are some town efforts underway to improve sidewalks and add bike lanes along Route 9/Belchertown Road between South East Street and at least Colonial Village and possibly to Stanley Street or even Gatehouse Road. You can see plans in this CDBG application filed in March 2023:
If successful, I believe the CDBG money would supplement a $755,000 MassWorks grant that was awarded last October, with Town sidewalk and road funds covering the balance to pay for the estimated total project budget of $2.5 million.
Related is whether there could be a path for pedestrians and bikes linking Belchertown Road/the Fort River Community Gardens to the Fort River school, possibly through the new Wayfinders affordable housing project at #72-80? Kids coming from neighborhoods east of the school could then bike or walk to school without having to go up to the intersection with South East Street. I recently raised this idea with Stephanie Ciccarello and Dave Ziomek and Dave said he will insert it into their planning for the rest of the town-owned conservation land which abuts the school, and see how it fits with the Belchertown Road MassWorks sidewalk work.
For bike/ped access from the north east, there is a wide path linking Pelham Road/Main Street directly to the school property.
For access across South East Street, from the new Wayfinders development at the old East Street School and from Watson Farms, there is another CDBG application that would help improve things. I think was submitted in March and you can see it here:
Thanks so much to all, for all your work!! And yes, thanks so much for pushing on bike/ped stuff!!!!