Wellesley Town Meeting week 4 recap: It’s a wrap; Enough abstaining; Battery PILOT; Light study voted down

Wellesley Town Meeting 2023 wrapped up on night #7, with Moderator Mark Kaplan saying “I’ll see you all in the fall!”

Before we got to that point, though, some final business had to be taken care of on April 24 in a meeting that lasted past 11:30pm. The scorecard for Town Meeting is now complete.

Wellesley Media recording

Enough abstaining

During his opening remarks, Kaplan urged Town Meeting members to vote Yes or No on motions rather than abstaining, unless they had a really good reason to do so (such as a financial conflict of interest). As many as 10 abstentions were counted on a couple of motions earlier during Town Meeting, and Kaplan was informed by some that there appeared to be an “unusually high” number of abstentions, especially on tough issues.

“I just want to remind everybody here that you’ve been elected to cast votes on behalf of the people who sent you here. And your constituents are entitled to know how you vote on all issues, but most particularly on tough issues,” Kaplan said.

Battery PILOT

Wellesley’s on the cutting edge in working with nonprofit Citizens Energy to house a battery storage farm next to the Municipal Light Plant building off of Rte. 9 west at Municipal Way, and this 20-year project requires some fancy financial footwork. Thus the motion under Article 31 for the Select Board and Board of Assessors to come to terms on a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement with Citizens Energy to smooth its payment of personal property taxes on the gear, valued in the millions, that would sit on the roughly 4 acres of land leased from the MLP.

(PILOT agreements are rare in Wellesley, though the town does have 1 with Babson College.)

bess
BESS location, as shown by MLP at Town Meeting

 

The nearly 5 megawatt battery energy storage system (BESS) will be designed to enable the town to shave its peak electricity usage, which in turn should save the MLP $8M over 20 years, and that should save customers money. The town would use power from the BESS during peak demand times—likely a wicked hot day in August—rather than from the usual grid. Power from BESS could also be used to support municipal buildings in the event of a major outage, and Citizens could use power for other uses, though Wellesley would always have first dibs.

MLP Board Chair Paul Criswell did the honors of explaining electricity bills, which consist of power, capacity and transmission segments, and the ins and outs of the battery storage system.

Some questions were raised about the safety of the BESS, filled with the type of lithium-ion batteries we’ve all heard explosion and fire horror stories about. Criswell said Citizens Energy has a good safety track record (including with its BESS in Holyoke) and that the Wellesley Fire Department has OK’d the plan.

The motion on this article passed, with just 3 “No” votes and 1 abstention.


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Making quick work

Not to be underestimated given the challenges municipalities have hiring and retaining good employees were articles related to town jobs. Article 32 updated HR policies, including a new one that addresses employees who wind up working in a higher job classification than their salary applies to,  and Article 37 amended bylaws for deputy police chief and assistant fire chief contracts. Motions on both articles passed quickly and easily.

Article 39, regarding wetlands violations (a $300 fine is now specified for certain violations), also passed without discussion.

Wellesley going even greener with opt-in code

Wellesley Sustainability Director Marybeth Martello, in introducing Article 36 regarding adoption of the municipal opt-in specialized energy code, buttered up Town Meeting members by praising their track record for supporting sustainability efforts. And indeed, Town Meeting did vote in favor of the motion 141/33/3.

The opt-in code will go into effect at the start of next year.

list of climate actions approved over the years by town meeting

The code, for new residential and commercial construction, should help the town achieve aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals by encouraging all-electric buildings. Supporting the code fits with the Climate Action Plan released by the town last year and readies the town to comply with federal and state energy rules coming down the road.

Martello stressed the importance of adopting the code by citing the fact that buildings account for more than half of emissions in town, and residential buildings count toward a third of that. Wellesley already is a stretch code community, and the opt-in code represents the next level up in building energy regulations. Wellesley joins Boston, Cambridge, and others in opting in on this code, which for those building certain kinds of homes, could mean new pre-wiring and solar requirements.

Town Meeting member Pete Jones, an early adopter of solar panels, warned that there are pluses and minuses to adopting solar and other green technologies, including how to dispose of old equipment. He also pointed to the upfront costs involved in pre-wiring, and the impact that could have on home affordability.

Deed McCollum, a Town Meeting member speaking on behalf of Building a Better Wellesley as well as for herself, supported the article, saying it will provide benefits to occupants of affordable housing, including “improved air quality, lower energy bills, and the ability to shelter in place.”

Lights out on study committee

Town Meeting ended with a 2-hour-plus discussion of a citizen petition, Article 43, seeking formation of a Night Use of Public Lands Study Committee. The focus would be on forming a moderator-appointed group of town representatives and residents to evaluate seven key sites across town, from Hunnewell Fields to Centennial Reservation, that could be subject to future night time use and to consider how decision making around that would happen.

The article initially included wording about a moratorium on installation of field or court lights on public lands, clearly aimed at the Hunnewell track and field project, but a motion on that was stripped out during the vetting process.

article 43
Evaluation summary from Article 43

 

Town Meeting member Judy Barr has taken the lead on this petition, though was unavailable to speak on April 24, so Town Meeting member Dr. Regina LaRocque presented instead. Among supporters of the article were the Wellesley Conservation Land Trust.

Proponents point to how much community members value public land in town, the important role that habitat protection plays in supporting Wellesley’s climate goals, and alarming science about a decline in biodiversity around the world.

“Our public lands need policies, protections, and bylaws just like our other lands in town. So we have residential and commercial zoning regulations that provide more protection than many of the regulations that govern public lands,” LaRocque said.

The Advisory Committee voted unfavorable action on Motion 1 of the article, 12-2, citing among other things that the Natural Resources Commission is already tasked with “care, custody, and control of the public lands.”

The Wellesley School Committee’s Linda Chow spoke in opposition to Article 43, starting by posing the question of what problem a new committee would be solving given there haven’t been public requests for lights on any of the identified properties beyond Hunnewell Fields. The “scope, schedule, and cost” also would seem “unrealistic,” she said, with the goal of having a recommendation to Town Meeting next year. Chow contrasted such a process with that engaged in by the School Committee in working with the NRC to get the Hunnewell track & field plans for bathrooms, team rooms and lights approved in recent years. She noted particular attention paid to issues related to land use change, including impacts on natural resources and the neighborhood.

NRC Chair Jay McHale added that the article “simply looks to replace what already is the responsibility of the NRC.” Fellow NRC member Bea Bezmalinovic later invited petitioners to approach the commission with a request to study night time light use across fields.

Town Meeting members and non-member residents weighed in, beginning with Mary Ann Cluggish, who pointed out the underrated significance of protecting wetlands in addressing climate change. Wetlands are in almost all of the town’s public lands and play a key role in absorbing carbon, she said, adding that it’s possible to calculate how disturbing wetlands with lights can result in carbon and methane release into the atmosphere. “So while it is absolutely essential to reduce the use of fossil fuels, it’s also important to use other ways to reduce carbon emissions,” Cluggish said.

More speakers followed, and passions flared, even prompting moderator Kaplan to employ his gavel a couple of times when speakers ran over time. Of course, that’s one of the main reasons to be the moderator in the first place.

town moderator using gavel
Moderator Mark Kaplan proves handy with the gavel (screenshot from Wellesley Media recording)

 

Speaking against the article, Town Meeting member Philippa Biggers found the proposed committee to overlap with existing town bodies, pointed to studies related to the Hunnewell track and field project that found negligible environmental impacts, and raised hope that the NRC can focus on night lights itself. “It is my firm belief that coming out with a study group is a redundant, confusing process outside of the various designated boards which are already functioning effectively,” she said.

Overall, about 2 dozen Town Meeting members and non-Town Meeting members made statements or asked questions related to the article.

A sampling of comments from supporters and opponents of Article 43:

  • A reminder that the RDF’s creation stemmed from a citizen petition
  • “Even New York City has passed a nighttime lighting ordinance… the City that Never Sleeps…”
  • After describing the multiple town bodies and steps involved in making town decisions: “Article 43 seems to discount all the work being done by a lot of people day in and day out.”
  • “What are we so afraid of with this study committee?… It will inform this body going forward as to how we should going forward control lights, nighttime use of public fields.” There’s precedent in the Sprague Field Study Committee
  • “I’m rising in opposition to Article 43… because the way this committee has been proposed it has no power, it has no experts. No experts in environmental protection, no experts in light pollution, no experts in wetlands protection, and no funding to hire any of those experts…”
  • A pediatrician spoke of concerns with night time lights, and the noise and traffic that come with them
  • “The demand for fields is real. The boards are trying to grapple with that. They’ve gone through tons of study. They’re here and this looks like some future obstacle that interferes with the ability to move forward and progress in meeting those needs.”
  • About that recently approved motion focused on diversity, equity and inclusion: What about treating people across town fairly when it comes to use of public lands? “We are so privileged. We want what we want when we want it and that’s now. And we’re not open to discussion…”
  • “These opportunities to get together at night, these are joyful noises. We don’t need to be protected from nighttime sports and nighttime events.”
  • There have been studies about light use in town, but they’ve mainly been focused on Hunnewell Fields, not others mentioned in the article.

The motion on the article failed to pass by a vote of 54/115.

There you go, Mr. Moderator. Not a single abstention.


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