BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)–West Tisbury officials have asked to formally withdraw from a new pilot program allowing a group of cities and towns to restrict fossil fuel infrastructure in the building sector, tipping over a domino that could lead to groundbreaking new regulations in Boston or another municipality.
The tiny Martha’s Vineyard community was one of 10 that secured a spot in line for the groundbreaking program created in an August clean energy law, but its leaders quickly became concerned they might not fulfill housing requirements added to the legislation in the final steps of its passage.
Those fears crystallized into formal action on Thursday. West Tisbury Town Administrator Jennifer Rand wrote to the Baker administration seeking to pull her town from the list — a move that would free up a spot for another Massachusetts community to roll out regulations mandating new buildings or major renovations shy away from energy sources such as natural gas and oil.
While West Tisbury “would very much like to participate,” Rand said, the town “cannot meet the required affordable housing criteria.”
“In stepping aside, we hope to make way for a large, diverse municipality to be part of the pilot, providing an opportunity for a greater impact on this program,” Rand wrote, urging the Department of Energy Resources to pick a replacement “promptly.”
Other major American cities including New York, Los Angeles and Seattle have started the process of reining in greenhouse gas emissions from the building sector by requiring some combination of electric-powered heat, appliances and hot water in construction or renovation, rather than natural gas or oil.
The Massachusetts law sought to explore the impacts of steps like that in a small, “demonstration” group of 10 cities and towns, and it outlined two different processes for municipalities to win admission into the program.
All 10 original spots must be awarded in the order cities and towns sent the Legislature their home rule petitions, and if any drop out, DOER selects a replacement municipality that has also submitted a home rule petition but no longer needs to heed the queue — the administration can pick any alternative community from the pool of applicants, regardless of whether it held the 11th or 51st spot in line.
Now comes a waiting game of undetermined length. DOER, part of the Baker administration for the next three months until the next governor takes office, has sole authority to select a new city or town from a still-minute pool to take West Tisbury’s spot in the pool.
So far, the department is remaining mum about how it will proceed. Asked when DOER would name a replacement and what cities and towns were eligible, a Baker administration spokesperson who agreed to communicate only on background said the department is still reviewing the law and expects to develop a formal process to implement the pilot program, which will include a schedule outlining when DOER will accept applications from municipalities.
Sen. Mike Barrett, who co-chairs the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee and played an integral role in crafting the legislation launching the program, said he hopes that DOER moves quickly to accept West Tisbury’s letter as a formal withdrawal. “That would be an extremely helpful step and formally open up one of the 10 spots,” the Lexington Democrat said.
But the department is not exactly on the clock, according to lawmakers. Fellow TUE Committee Co-chair Rep. Jeff Roy of Franklin said there are few hard dates outlined in the section of the law, other than a July 1, 2023 deadline to promulgate optional regulations governing the pilot program, an 18-month window for cities and towns to meet the affordable housing targets, and reporting requirements down the road.
Barrett said a specific timeline for confirming a withdrawal and filling an open slot is “a level of detail the statute leaves unaddressed.” “This is effectively up to DOER at the moment,” Barrett said. Both lawmakers said they think it would be within reason and good-faith operation for DOER to take several months to figure out the logistics of the pilot program before choosing a city or town to fill West Tisbury’s spot.
At this point, there are only two potential successors: Boston and Somerville. City councils in both communities approved home rule petitions — H 5291 for Somerville, H 5317 for Boston — in the last two months looking to win state approval to limit fossil fuel use in their building sectors. They would be the 11th and 12th municipalities in line, so either community will need some kind of action from DOER to secure a spot in the pilot program or additional legislative authorization to pursue the action they want.
By the time DOER is ready to select another community, it might have far more options. Barrett said he expects news of West Tisbury’s attempted withdrawal to trigger “intense interest” in taking its spot.
Roy added that he hopes to see a designated environmental justice community, where residents are disproportionately burdened by the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, secure a place in the program. “One of the things that was important to us in considering this type of legislation was to make sure it wasn’t just wealthy communities that were having an opportunity,” Roy said. “We wanted to have something that went across the board and could apply to any community. If they weren’t complying with 40B, we didn’t think they should be part of the process.”
West Tisbury’s home rule petition (S 2941) landed in mid-June, when it was clear to cities and towns that lawmakers were considering some kind of program allowing local fossil fuel bans in the building sector but before the Legislature added affordable housing requirements as a prerequisite to participation. Those requirements — either achieving at least 10 percent affordable housing stock under the state’s Chapter 40B law or approving a zoning ordinance allowing multi-family housing by right in a “district of reasonable size” — were crafted as an olive branch to Gov. Charlie Baker, who voiced concerns that allowing cities and towns to require all-electric infrastructure in new buildings could stymie production of housing in an already-strained market.
With an affordable housing stock of just 1.9 percent, West Tisbury is well short of the 10 percent threshold and will not be able to complete the zoning change alternative. “The Town of West Tisbury passed this legislation overwhelmingly because we believe that we must reduce carbon emissions from our building stock in order to meet our climate goals, as well as to meet the State and Federal goals of 50% reduction in emissions by 2030,” Rand wrote. “Stopping the use of fossil fuels in new buildings and major renovations is a first, essential step in achieving these goals.”
Seven of the original 10 communities already surpassed the 10 percent affordable housing target in the most recent state data: Acton, Aquinnah, Brookline, Cambridge, Concord, Lexington and Lincoln.
The other two, Arlington and Newton, lagged below 10 percent, but officials there are optimistic they can qualify by reaching that target in the coming months or by securing local approval for the zoning change alternative.