ON SATURDAY MORNING, Town Meeting participants agreed to adopt a Specialized Energy Code for a lot of new construction. (Frank Conte Photo)
By NEIL ZOLOT
WAKEFIELD — All seven articles passed at the fall Town Meeting Saturday, November 18 at the Galvin Middle School.
It took about three hours, with the vast majority of discussion devoted to Article 7, which by a vote of 109-33 amended bylaws to add a Specialized Energy Code of the International Energy Conservation Code adopted by the state and federal government to the existing Stretch Code (adopted by Town Meeting in 2021), to require that new multi-family residences have electric power systems or be pre-wired for future electrification and have solar energy roof panels if they have mixed fuel systems of electricity and gas and it is feasible, effective July 1. Solar panels are not feasible for all roofs and buildings using all electric energy are exempt from needing them. New single family homes are also exempt.
“If we create all-electric housing and reduce gas use, we’re benefiting the environment,” Gas and Light Department General Manager Pete Dion said on behalf of the article. “The carbon footprint of an all-electric home is lower and the ability to wire for an all-electric grid in the next 30 years is pretty easy and I believe we are ready.”
Environmental Sustainability Committee Vice-Chair Tiana Veldwisch added, “Adoption puts Wakefield on a sustainability process to meeting state environmental energy codes.” Those are a 75% reduction in carbon emissions by 2040 and 100%, i.e. no carbon emissions, by 2050. (The town has already achieved a 53% reduction, ahead of its 2023 goal of a 50% reduction.)
“Will we regret this decision in 2050 if we invest time and money to make sure we have energy efficient buildings?” Planning Board member James Hogan asked somewhat rhetorically. “I’d guess no. It’s short-sighted if we don’t take action about what will be a decision we won’t regret later.”
Objections from the floor centered on the timing of adopting the new code as much, if not more, than the subject of the article itself. Before discussion even began, Robert McLaughlin motioned it be tabled pending more study and public forums on the particulars and be reconsidered at the spring Town Meeting. “We don’t know what we’re voting for,” he said. Marcy McCauley agreed.
Environmental Sustainability Committee Chair Melissa Eusden and Town Councilor Julie Smith-Galvin answered there had been an informational session November 6 on WCAT.
Town Counsel Tom Mullen, who served as acting moderator in the absence of Moderator Bill Carroll due to illness, added information has been available to the public through the Town Clerk’s office.
“If it doesn’t pass, can it be brought back in the spring?” School Committee Chair Amy Leeman asked Mullen.
He answered it could before warning the question at hand was whether to table the article, not the merits of the proposal. He ruled McLaughlin’s motion failed after a show of hands.
That had been preceded by a vote to allow proponents to make a presentation longer than the usual five minutes. Tom Miller objected to the request on the basis the bylaws only allowed five. That failed also failed after a show of hands.
Finally, after Veldwisch narrated the powerpoint presentation, discussion began.
A recurring question was if and how the need to meet the regulations applied to renovations, brought up by McLaughlin and Scot McCauley.
Building Inspector Benjamin DeChristoforo answered that some renovations are so extensive they constitute new construction. (This can be an issue with any number of requirements and renovators try to find a sweet spot of work before new regulations become applicable.)
“Given there’s no clear line between renovation and new construction, there’s no real difference between Article 7 and the current code,” Ainsley McCall said.
After the meeting Northeast Regional Coordinator for the Green Communities Program Dylan Patel explained solar panels are required only for buildings “100% new.”
Scot McCauley added, “All electricity comes from fossil fuels, i.e. gas, but we can’t have fossil fuel in our homes? We’re trading one for another.”
Dion answered, “The ability to control electricity is easier than gas. The cost of gas will go up more than electricity.”
Another issue was how the cost of wiring and solar panels would affect the cost of homes, especially given the need for affordable housing. Scot McCauley said it would be “an additional burden on people wanting to build homes. It will drive costs up.”
“Energy costs will be cheaper in the long run, but up-front costs are unavoidable,” McLaughlin added. “I’m not sure it’s as affordable as the proponents are making it out to be.”
“Costs will be passed on to buyers,” Town Councilor Edward Dombroski agreed.
“Up-front costs to developers will be passed on,” resident Andrew Hedberg also agreed, but added, “I’m in favor of this for making things more affordable on a day-to-day basis.”
Resident Phil Renzi wondered if how much or any wiring will be compatible with new systems in 15 or 20 years.
“Lower energy costs mean more affordable housing for everyone,” resident John Crisley offered.
Part of the Environmental Sustainability Committee presentation read, “By adopting this code, Wakefield’s new High School becomes eligible for an additional 3% incentive funding.”
Questions were asked about what that meant related to the more than $270 million cost of the school and the $213 million-plus town share of the project.
Eusden, Veldwisch and consultant energy code specialist Michael Rossi pointed out the new school is already compliant.
Dombroski said 3% was not accurate because there is no simple calculation of the reimbursement of costs.
“The formula is complex, but it does factor into reimbursement,” Town Council Chair Jonathan Chines added.
Discussion eventually returned to whether to act on the question at all, in part because developers could adhere to the regulations without passage. “We’ve already adopted code higher than most communities and putting a new code on top of that,” Scott McCauley argued. “As homeowners we have the option to do all this. Why are we pushing people to higher costs?”
“This doesn’t preclude use of fossil fuels,” resident Tom Boettcher agreed.
“We’re already doing a lot and being responsible, but we need to educate ourselves,” Marcy McCauley added. “It’s not fair to adopt this at this particular meeting.”
Admitting he was speaking “as the lawyer in me,” Dombroski picked up, “I’d encourage tabling so issues can be addressed. You have information from people advocating for a particular outcome. That’s not to say it’s a bad idea, but it’s not as clear cut as it’s printed. When you hear about cost savings, I don’t think we can be convinced of that today.”
“Discussion six months down the road will be similar,” resident Karen Faler argued for consideration. “Wrinkles will have to be worked out, but it’s important to start.”
“Kicking it down the road we’d have the same questions,” Town Councilor Michael McLane agreed.
Mullen rejected Miller’s new motion to table the question on the grounds an earlier one had failed.
An earlier motion to “move the question” requiring two-thirds approval was rejected 81-63.
“Many people have valuable questions and deserve more time,” resident Julie Scott argued in that discussion, with Mullen limiting comments to two minutes per person and reminding attendees any comments should be limited to the specific motion to move the question.
In other comments, Youth Council Chair Ali Al-Abideen, too young to vote, encouraged approval. “This is a step in the right direction for future generations,” he said.
“I’m very pleased, “Veldwisch said after the vote. “It was a good decision. The residents decided in favor of future generations and support the planet.”
“I’m very pleased,” echoed Smith-Galvin. “I feel it’s the right decision for the town. We’ll work with the Building Department to make sure they understand it.”
“We had a full discussion,” McLane concluded. “I’m glad we passed it.”
All other articles passed in short order with little or no discussion, save explanations by Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio.
Article 1 was acceptance of a report of the Fiscal Year 2023 budget.
Article 2 authorized the Board of Assessors to use available Free Cash in the Treasury or any part thereof to compute the tax rate for the fiscal period ending June 30, 2024.
Article 3 was a vote to implement collective bargaining agreements with Wakefield Firefighters Union Local 1478 International Association of Firefighters for the period of July 1, 2023 to June 30, 2026 and the Town raise and appropriate or transfer from available funds a sufficient sum of money to carry out the Article.
Article 4 was a vote to implement collective bargaining agreements with the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, Wakefield Division for the period of July 1, 2023 to June 30, 2026 and the Town raise and appropriate or transfer from available funds a sufficient sum of money to carry out the Article.
Article 5 was a vote to implement collective bargaining agreements with Wakefield Police Superior Officers’ Association for the period of July 1, 2023 to June 30, 2026 and the Town raise and appropriate or transfer from available funds a sufficient sum of money to carry out the Article.
Article 6 accepted state General Laws to provide for an additional real estate exemption for taxpayers who are granted personal exemptions on their domiciles, including certain blind persons, veterans, surviving spouses and seniors, and to provide that the additional exemption shall be up to one hundred percent (100%) of the personal exemption, to be effective for exemptions granted for any fiscal year beginning on or after July 1, 2024.
The first order of business was the vote to have Mullen be acting Moderator, after Town Clerk Betsy Sheeran called the meeting to order.