Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lessons from Harvard's Green Community bid

As Ayer's Green Community Committee works to get key information out to voters before the spring Town Meeting (see below for information on the upcoming Stretch Code seminar that will take place March 23), neighboring Harvard is gearing up for the first energy-reduction projects that will be funded by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) since the town earned "Green Community" status at the end of 2010.

Eric Broadbent, a Harvard resident with a personal interest in sustainability issues and alternative energy, is a member of the Harvard Energy Advisory Committee, which spearheaded the town's charge for the Green Community label. I recently spoke to him to see how Harvard was able to meet all the requirements and get them approved by its Board of Selectmen and voters in time to meet last fall's DOER deadline, as Ayer seeks to do this year.

How did Harvard's bid for "Green Community" status start off?

The Harvard Energy Advisory Committee (HEAC) was appointed by the BOS in mid-2008 and began to put together an energy audit of town facilities, with an eye to an energy-reduction plan, before the Green Communities Act was passed. Then in mid-2009, when some citizens and members of the committee began to hear about the act, HEAC went to the BOS to make the case to pursue the Green Community designation.

What was the BOS response?

We had some members who weren't sure about going for it. But because we already had good working relationships with the boards in town, they agreed to allow us to apply for a Planning Assistance Grant from DOER, which would pay for a consultant to advise us along the way. We got our assistance grant in September 2009, and in early 2010, began meeting with our consultants. From there, it was a process of educating the public and addressing the concerns of the Selectmen as well as we could. We always took the attitude that the decision was theirs, and it was up to us to give them as much information as we could to help them decide.

How did you get information out to the public?

The Stretch Code (a new building code aimed at minimizing life-cycle energy costs, to which all new residential construction over 3,000 square feet, as well as new commercial or industrial projects will have to conform) was the key piece we needed to educate voters on. Initially, we had put the Stretch Code on the spring Town Meeting warrant, but as we only had time to have one sparsely-attended open meeting about that requirement before Town Meeting, we knew we probably wouldn't get an informed vote. As we anticipated, the town tabled that item for future discussion rather than go for a toss-of-the-dice vote. But the warrant served the purpose of getting the topic out in front of voters. It was basically our (HEAC's) job at this point to get the public informed.

We had a terrific volunteer effort to create a web site to put up a large amount of information we had from DOER and other towns so voters could refer to that. We were also able to get the League of Women Voters to sponsor a panel discussion between people who were for the Stretch Code, and people who were against, along with a person we provided who could answer Stretch Code questions. This event was broadcast on local public access cable. We also had an open mic event for questions about the Stretch Code and other Green Community topics.

The local paper was another venue for keeping our efforts in front of the town. Several articles were published as we worked through the criteria. Also, a number of citizens wrote letters to the editor, which helped keep the subject in the public eye.

We had to meet with every board in town who had a vote on the criteria. We went into those meetings and basically said, "Here's our plan. What are your concerns?" And we had to acknowledge that, yes, there were some issues we didn't have an easy answer for, but we were ready to show the members the positives that each part of the plan could provide.

Did you run into stumbling blocks along the way?

Early on, we had a Planning Board chairman who told us that the weight of opinion on the Planning Board was against us for "as of right" siting for alternative energy projects (the first criteria) and the Stretch Code. That person later wound up resigning, so we began working to address the other members' concerns.

There was some initial resistance to the vehicle-replacement policy (which requires that towns replace town vehicles with energy-efficient models). But once we were able to show the boards and voters that it didn't cover every vehicle used by the town -- just the ones where feasible models existed (so not the town's fire engines, for instance) -- and that the fuel requirements were comparable to most current standards anyway, that eased up.

There were also a lot of ins and outs to the timing of meeting the criteria. In order to be ready for key votes, we had to watch out for Open Meeting laws, so that meetings were published with enough notice that anyone who wanted to could attend, so that later steps which required votes weren't jeopardized.

Economic concerns must have cropped up. How did you address them?

As far as concerns about the Stretch Code somehow costing local developers money or business, DOER has published a lot of cost data, and their evidence is that homeowners would have payback in Year One. So we put those numbers out there: some people were going to believe them and some weren't.

How important was citizen involvement?

As I said earlier, citizens helped start the ball rolling by expressing interest in the Green Communities Act. And it was citizens who put together the web site, wrote letters and articles in the paper and finally, sponsored a petition and got enough signatures to have a special Town Meeting to vote to adopt the Stretch Code.

Now that you are officially a "Green Community," what projects are you hoping to have DOER fund?

The first projects for which we've applied for and received grants are building-automation and energy-efficiency systems for the elementary school and police station. At both, we're looking to install automation to make heating and ventilation systems more efficient, and at the elementary school, we're also planning to install a demand-control ventilation system. We also applied for funding for boiler replacements in several buildings, and at least one building (the fire station) will get a new boiler. Once these projects are completed, we are eligible to apply for additional grants whenever the next round of DOER funding becomes available.

Green goings on

Voters, get informed! Stretch Code info session March 23

For Ayer to become a Green Community under the state's Green Communities Act, voters must approve a new energy code at Town Meeting on May 9. This "Stretch Code," one of the requirements the town must meet to complete its application for Green Community status, aims to improve energy efficiency in new residential and commercial projects.

To give voters -- including builders and developers -- some insight into what this code means and doesn't mean for Ayer, the town Green Community Committee is hosting an informational session at Town Hall on Wednesday, March 23 at 7 p.m. The special guest speaker will be Mike Berry, a consultant and stretch code expert with IFC, the group providing planning assistance under our recent grant from DOER.

If named a Green Community Ayer will:
  • Shrink energy costs in municipal buildings.
  • Be able to access Green Community Grant funds to make Ayer even greener.
  • Foster clean energy technologies.
  • Promote energy-efficient construction of homes, businesses and municipal
  • buildings.
  • Become a better place to live, work and play.
Help set up veggie gardens for a good cause
Growing Places Garden Project, based in Clinton, is looking for volunteers in mid-April to help set up vegetable gardens for clients in various locations. This organization has been working for most of the past decade to provide families, schools and institutions with free-of-charge garden set-ups, seeds and seedlings (using volunteer labor) to empower people to provide nutritious food for themselves at low cost. Click here to view a survey of dates when Growing Places needs volunteers and go put your green thumb to use -- you know you want to, after this winter!

Learn organic lawn care methods right here in town!

If you're thinking of going organic with your lawn care, but want to learn more about what's involved, head to the Sandy Pond recreation area on Saturday, April 9, for a workshop led by John Coppinger of The Coppinger Company, who, not so incidentally, provides organic lawn care for that very spot.

The workshop is part of a series, “NOFA/Mass Statewide Organic Lawn Days,” hosted by the Northeast Organic Farming Association/Massachusetts Chapter, Inc., and funded by the Toxics Use Reduction Institute of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. The cost is $25. For more information or to register, contact Kathy Litchfield at 413-773-3830 or

Get set for A Cleaner Ayer and Shirley, April 30
Mark your's almost time for townwide cleanup day for Ayer and Shirley. Grab a friend, then come down to Depot Square (or to the town Recycling Center in Shirley) and grab a bag or two and help polish up the towns' roadsides and neighborhoods from 9 a.m. to noon. Afterward, join the Ayer and Shirley Recycling Committees for pool and an appetizer/dessert potluck at the Billiards Cafe in Ayer from 2 to 5 p.m.

Volunteers are advised to wear bright colors. In addition, Shirley is looking for volunteers to help sort recyclables at the Shirley Recycling Center from noon to 1 p.m.

To register or for more information, contact Laurie Sabol in Ayer at 978-772-7858 or at or Dawn McCall at 978-425-6132 or at

If there's something strange in your neighborhood, who ya gonna call?

If, in your travels around town, you spot something happening that seems environmentally iffy (illegal dumping, construction projects causing excessive runoff, chemical odors, etc.), you might wonder where to go with that information. The Ayer Conservation Commission (978-772-8249) is one option, and can take your report of what's going on and track down the right people to deal with the situation. (And of course, the Police Department can also assist you.)

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