The Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) plans to vote tonight on whether to designate a town-wide energy district of critical planning concern (DCPC) in Aquinnah, following the conclusion of a one-night public hearing on the proposed designation a week ago. The meeting takes place at 7:30 pm in Oak Bluffs at 33 New York Avenue in Oak Bluffs.
MVC chairman Doug Sederholm appointed seven commissioners to an Aquinnah energy DCPC committee at the end of last week's hearing, which met on Monday. After discussion of the pros and cons, the committee agreed to recommend that the full commission approve the DCPC designation at tonight's meeting. The committee also worked on fine-tuning draft goals and guidelines for the energy district that will be included, should the DCPC designation be approved.
Although the entire town of Aquinnah already is designated a DCPC, the Aquinnah selectmen submitted a nomination application on Oct. 31 asking the MVC to designate a town-wide energy DCPC "to protect further the town's landscape, while managing energy resources effectively."
In addition to encouraging efficient building construction with regulations designed to optimize alternative energy uses in new construction, an energy DCPC could address optimum placement of wind turbines, solar panels, and geothermal systems, the selectmen's application also stated.
The MVC unanimously agreed to accept the nomination for consideration at a meeting on Nov. 1, which gave the commissioners 60 days to hold a public hearing and vote on whether or not to designate the energy district.
At the public hearing on Dec. 6, DCPC coordinator Jo-Ann Taylor provided a staff report that included draft goals and guidelines, in preparation for the possibility the MVC will approve the energy DCPC designation. The commission also must name the district and determine its boundary.
The Aquinnah selectmen specified the area under consideration for the proposed energy DCPC designation as "that portion of air space over all lands and waters within the Town of Aquinnah, except the Indian Common Lands (generally known as the Cranberry Bogs, the Clay Cliff and Herring Creek), and the Settlement Lands, which exceeds 32 feet in height above mean natural grade and/or mean sea level."
Although ordinarily DCPC nominations trigger an automatic building moratorium, the MVC agreed to a request from the Aquinnah selectmen to place a limited moratorium on the district pertaining only to structures exceeding 32 feet in height.
Should the MVC vote tonight to designate a town-wide energy DCPC, the same limited moratorium will remain in effect for up to a year after the designation decision, until regulations for the district are approved.
In a phone conversation Monday, Ms. Taylor said that the Aquinnah selectmen's purpose in designating a boundary in the air was to avoid subjecting the town to a town-wide moratorium on building while allowing the energy DCPC process to move forward.
"Should the MVC make the designation that the district would start at 32 feet in the air, the moratorium will only kick in for projects 32 feet tall, which is basically a wind turbine tower," she explained. "It doesn't seem to be necessary for the process to have a town-wide moratorium on all building, which would include projects like adding a deck to a home, for example, and everything that's not an emergency. This is a way that the town can have a very limited moratorium that's not going to unduly burden the town and the commission."
In Ms. Taylor's staff report, she said the designation, beginning at a height of 32 feet, might prove to be inadequate in fully regulating a town-wide energy district. The energy DCPC committee agreed, keeping language in the revised draft goals and regulations that would allow the town to request an amendment to the height coverage of the district "after researching its energy needs, desires, and options."
In the Aquinnah selectmen's DCPC nomination application, they pointed out that the town's current zoning regulations do not address the siting or height of wind tower turbines. "Some people are concerned about any moratorium on wind turbines, even stopping construction for 6 months," Ms. Rose said. "However, what we're looking for is the ability to permit them, which we don't have right now."
The selectmen's application also mentioned encouraging efficient, responsible building construction through "carefully considered guidelines."
"Regulations designed to optimize alternative energy uses in new construction can educate property owners while benefiting the Island community," the selectmen wrote in the DCPC nomination application. "This DCPC could encompass optimum placement of wind turbines, solar panels, and geothermal systems as well as revolutionary design."
While those in the construction trades might have concerns that an energy DCPC could lead to regulations requiring alternative energy systems in all new homes and buildings, Ms. Rose said that was not the intent.
"Aquinnah has a bylaw that anything over 2,000 square feet requires a special permit which we can grant or not, as we see fit," said Ms. Rose, who also chairs the town's planning board. "I don't know what regulations we'll come up with, but it may be that we could let someone build a bigger house that was consuming more electricity if they would be willing to comply with energy conservation guidelines for a larger structure. I prefer to think of a lot of these as guidelines rather than strict regulations. It's a negotiating tool, as well."
Although Ms. Taylor's staff report did not include any specific draft guidelines for new construction and existing buildings, the energy DCPC committee's revised draft does. Under the heading "most efficient use of fossil fuels," the draft guidelines address incorporating measures for energy efficiency in new buildings and building renovations and improving energy efficiency in existing buildings, as well as the use of renewable energy sources.
In a phone call on Tuesday, MVC executive director Mark London said that while regulations on wind turbines are fairly straight forward, setting up an overall system to ensure an energy standard for each new building is not. "One issue that came up is there should be some effort to use efficiency measures first before resorting to putting up a wind turbine that might affect goals of the existing town DCPC," he said. "If you've got a new house, the first priority is to make it as energy efficient as possible. If a wind turbine would have significant visual impact, it might run counter to the town's existing DCPC." Since Aquinnah already has a town-wide DCPC in place, he said the town and the commission must also consider how two DCPCs would mesh, in keeping with already established regulations designed to protect rural character, scenic views, and the skyline.
Last night the Aquinnah selectmen hosted an energy policy forum in conjunction with the town's wind energy committee, inviting the public to discuss plans for using renewable energy sources, including a wind-powered turbine for the benefit of Aquinnah and perhaps communities Island-wide.
Because of the complexity of the issues involved, Mr. London said on Tuesday that the energy DCPC committee's draft guidelines would likely be revised again before tonight's meeting.
If the MVC does designate an energy district in Aquinnah, the town will begin crafting regulations in conformance with the commission's guidelines. The Aquinnah selectmen say they are committed to finishing the process in six months, according to Ms. Rose. They plan to hold several public meetings for input on proposed regulations from the community.
When finished, the regulations must be brought back to the MVC for another public hearing. If approved by the MVC, the regulations then require approval by two-thirds of Aquinnah voters at a town meeting.