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Cambridge city planners raise concerns with Net Zero zoning proposal

Posted by Brock Parker  August 21, 2013 12:11 PM

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Cambridge planners are raising concerns about a petition to amend local zoning laws and cut back on greenhouse gas emissions of large buildings, saying there are significant risks that the proposal could drive away developers, companies and residents.

A report presented by city staff to the Planning Board Tuesday said that while the petition would benefit Cambridge’s sustainability goal to reduce non-renewable energy consumption, it carries with it significant risks of unintended consequences.

Jeff Roberts, a land use and zoning project planner for the city, said the cost of developing what is being called “net zero” buildings could be passed on to tenants, and could drive away new development.

“There’s always the possibility that this would create a shift--that the cost might cause development that would otherwise occur in Cambridge to occur in other communities that don’t have similar requirements, such as Boston or Somerville or suburban areas,” Roberts said.

The zoning proposal, known as the Connolly Petition, seeks to address climate change by steering new buildings away from using fossil fuels and toward using renewable energy sources.

The zoning petition was submitted by Mike Connolly, a member of the environmental group Green Cambridge, and if approved would require that new large-scale building projects create no net greenhouse gas emissions.

The proposal seeks to encourage more energy efficient buildings and to encourage developers to generate power on site through renewable energy sources, such as solar power and geothermal wells. Under the proposal, all energy consumed by the building beyond the renewable energy generated on site must be from approved renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind-generated power, or offset by verifiable renewable energy credits, according to the petition.

Proponents of the petition cited the need to address dangerous climate change and told the Planning Board Tuesday that zoning can be a useful tool to address greenhouse gas emissions.

Dennis Carlone, an architect supporting the petition said Cambridge has the knowledge and the economy to institute a net zero policy.

“If not Cambridge, Harvard and MIT, than who?” Carlone said. “It has to start somewhere.”

But Jesse Kanson-Benanav, founder of A Better Cambridge group promoting the construction of more diverse housing through sustainable growth, said the net zero proposal is untested, could make it more difficult for developers to create the kind of new housing needed in Cambridge, and “would do more harm than good in our community.”

The Planning Board did not vote on whether to recommend the zoning petition Tuesday. Ultimately the City Council will decide the fate of the proposal, and the council’s Ordinance Committee is beginning its review Wednesday with a public hearing on the petition at City Hall beginning at 4 p.m.

--brock.globe@gmail.com

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