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I Go To City Council Meetings #15

Community members pack Council chambers to support resolution to stop the expansion of natural gas. And: Form-Based Coding and a PILOT agreement with Northampton Solar

by Blair Gimma

On Thursday, October 4th, the Northampton City Council held its sixteenth meeting of the year. Approximately 45 people were present.

Public Comment

A number of community members spoke in support of a resolution that opposes the expansion of gas infrastructure and calls for more clean energy development. The resolution was created in response to Columbia Gas’ recent assessment that there is a demand for more gas infrastructure expansion.

Adele Franks of Florence said, “We have been taught that natural gas is clean and safe, but we are learning this isn’t true. We have only recently become aware that methane is more potent than carbon dioxide. As we leak methane, we are harming our planet.”

Marty Nathan, a member of SWAP (Succeed Without Additional Pipelines) which is a local group that worked with the council to develop the resolution, told the council that she had not slept the previous evening because she read in her news feed that a lake in Alaska was bubbling like a cauldron. She learned that is was spewing methane from a deposit deep underneath. She stressed that these types of events are evidence that we are in a climate emergency. She ended saying, “We must stop burning fossil fuels now, yesterday.”

Molly Hail asked that Columbia Gas focus on repairs rather than expansion. She shared, “leaky pipes cause 2.7% of gas to be lost, and that equals 10% of mass gas emissions.” She too stressed the urgency of the situation, “We are in a climate emergency, we must find more alternatives. New infrastructure locks unsustainable energy in for decades to come rather than scaling back.”

Rene Pie told the council that is critical that we use less fossil fuels. He also questioned the safety of existing Columbia Gas systems asking if Northampton homes have the correct line pressure and regulating equipment to prevent what happened in Lawrence, MA from happening here.

Alex Mckinley, a student at Smith College, reminded the council of the future burden of climate change saying, “My generation will bear the brunt of fossil fuels, we will inherit the earth, we will inherit the climate change disaster.”

Ravine Sibbleman questioned whether Columbia Gas could prove whether there is a demand for natural gas saying, “Northampton is being used as a justification to build pipelines in neighboring communities.” She asked, “Where is this data from Columbia Gas?

Susan Tuberge thaked the council for its continued support for environmental regulations.

Lily Lumbar praised the economic savings and efficiencies of the solar panels she installed on her home.

Paul Witdredge, a member of SWAP, stressed the economic responsibilities of expanding natural gas infrastructure as the renewable energy industry grows. “If we were to build a new pipeline it would be a stranded asset because it will never pay for itself. We will be paying to remove it. We’ll be paying twice for something we never wanted.”

Sharon Moulton, a member of SWAP, thanked the council for its work, adding, “The explosions in the Merrimack Valley are a stark reminder that in the time of climate emergency, we need to facilitate a rapid transition away from fossil fuels.”

Peter Ives reminded the council of the urgency of climate change, “We only have until 2035 to make transitions before we lose control. Think about your children and grandchildren.”

Sarah Field raised the point that half of Northampton residents rent and, unlike property owners, are not given the option to transfer to renewable energy. “I appreciate the moves we are making toward alternative issues, however almost half of the people who live in Northampton pay gas bills but aren’t in control of those resources.” She asked the council to consider this as it makes policy on energy.

Susan Voss, who teaches engineering at Smith College, and is currently teaching a class about energy and the environment reminded the council that though we don’t see it, the impact of climate change is already here. “Small nations by the equator are almost underwater.” She urged Northampton to be a leader by setting high standards for clean energy.  

Elliot Franken pointed out that those that are the wealthiest are the people making sure we use fossil fuels as long as possible. He asked the council to work to reduce cost of non-fossil fuel energy.

Paul Voss, who also teaches engineering at Smith College and  currently teaches a class on atmosphere science, praised the ability of solar energy to reduce our reliance on natural gas. He too stressed the magnitude of the situation, “It is very real and scary. We can maybe slow it down. It is not the grandchildren we are worried about, it is the children.”

Two people spoke in support of the ballot measure that would limit the number of patients assigned to nurses.  

Suzanne Love, a registered nurse and member of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, asked the council and those watching at home to vote yes on Question 1 for registered nurses. “The best way  to get patients care is to have the right amount of staff. There is enough money to hire the nurses necessary.”

Erol Silva, a local nurse, shared that though she overcame obstacles to immigrate to the US without any family members and become a nurse, she may not be able to continue her work due to the current working of nurses. She explained, “I am responsible for 10 patients and some days that increases to up to 15 patients if a nurse is sick and cannot find a replacement. We do not even have breaks long enough to use the toilet.” She stressed that nurses are people too and many are dealing with health issues related to being overworked. “We are not angels with superpowers, we are humans with a physical body.”  

Eric spoke and once again made the council aware of the fact that recycling is important for the environment and questioned why Arizona Iced Tea cans cannot be recycled in Massachusetts.

A resolution to stop the expansion of gas infrastructure

When introducing the resolution, one of its sponsors, Councilor Alisa Klein (Ward 7) shared that the resolution had been brought to the energy and sustainability commission on the day of explosions in houses of Columbia Gas customers in the Merrimack Valley. She shared the big-picture fact that the U.S. has 2.6 million miles of gas and oil pipeline, making pipelines its largest transportation network in the country. She stated that more gas infrastructure would be a waste, “It will be a real stranded asset as we continue to develop 100% renewable energy. We are not going to need that pipeline.”

Co-sponsor of the resolution, Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) claimed that the moratorium imposed by Columbia Gas actually did Northampton a favor, saying that it was “forced austerity, that we responded to brilliantly.” He made the distinction between the role of a corporation like Columbia Gas and the role of an institution like City Council, “Corporations are required by law to generate profit, but that is not our mission.” He called on Columbia Gas to provide the evidence that the Northampton community desires more natural gas.

Councilor Sciarra and Councilor LaBarge agreed that they were not convinced that more capacity for natural gas is needed. Councilor Carney shared that her good friend lost his home in the Merrimack Valley explosions and thanked the sponsors for bringing the resolution forward.

Councilor Bidwell thanked the councilors for the resolution but also called for a reality check regarding local energy consumption, “Before we get too carried away for patting ourselves on the back, when we replace natural gas usage with electrical usage from the grid, we are displacing from our plant to other plants. He continued, “The electricity that we use from the grid in Northampton is 43% fossil fuels and 26% nuclear. Two-thirds of our energy comes from fossil fuels and nuclear plants, we can’t lose sight of that. Lets remember where our electricity comes from.”

Thought Councilor Nash supported the resolution, he suggested the resolution be sent to committee so that Columbia Gas, despite its repeated silence upon requests for information, could have another chance to provide evidence of increased capacity needs and to field questions from The Council.

Though Councilor Bidwell supported this motion, a number of councilors disagreed. Ultimately, they decided to work with Council President Ryan O’Donnell to send a letter to Columbia Gas inviting the company to the second reading of the resolution.

Form-Based Coding

Wayne Fiden, the director of planning and sustainability, gave a brief presentation to the council in which he announced that he would be proposing a form-based code in an effort to update the city’s zoning language. Fiden said that when it came to new planning, the system would give “neighborhoods and developers more certainty of outcome.” Form-based code is a land development regulation that uses physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for the code. He shared that over the coming months he would be sharing specific proposals that would seek to transition to the new planning code.

PILOT Agreement with Northampton Solar

On its second reading, the Council briefly discussed the Mayor’s request to negotiate a PILOT agreement with Northampton Solar, a subsidiary of Con Edison. Narkewicz clarified that the agreement would be twenty years. The council voted unanimously to grant authorization. (To learn more about the PILOT agreement, read the notes from the last Northampton City Council meeting here.)

I left with a few questions:

What fossil fuel industry flack came up with the term “natural gas”? Was it the same person who came up with term “clean coal”?

Is the reason that Columbia Gas isn’t returning the Council’s calls because they haven’t found a bunch of people who want pipelines in their backyards?

Blair Gimma is a co-editor of The Shoestring. They are alive in Northampton, MA.

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