Editors’ note: On Monday night, the Town Council did not support a moratorium on large-scale solar arrays. The vote was eight in favor, five opposed, failing to meet the required two-thirds.
By Bob Rakoff
Another year, another moratorium.
The Town Council will vote this evening on a proposed moratorium on large-scale solar arrays. While other folks have written about the pros and cons of this particular proposal, I am interested in the increasing advocacy of moratoriums in local political debates. Why now? Why so popular? Do they promote good decision-making in pursuit of the public good?
Moratoriums have a long history in Amherst politics, but their recent popularity stems from the 2018 election for Town Council. In that election, candidate Darcy DuMont featured a moratorium on downtown development at the center of her campaign. There weren’t a lot of details attached to her proposal for a six-month moratorium to allow for writing up new zoning regulations. In my view, the proposal was largely a campaign slogan masquerading as a serious policy, intended to appeal to people who disliked the scale and appearance of new downtown buildings. The proposal was eventually voted down by the Town Council.
When is a moratorium an appropriate response to a perceived problem? The key is whether there is an emergency that demands slamming on the brakes of business as usual. A recent example is the national moratorium on rental evictions during the first years of the Covid pandemic. Putting millions of unemployed, low-income people out into the streets during a public health crisis is just about a textbook case of an emergency that calls for immediate action.
It can be difficult to justify a local moratorium as a response to an emergency. Back in the 1970s, the State of Massachusetts imposed a moratorium on new hook-ups to the local sewer system until a new solid waste facility was completed. There was grumbling about this, but little dispute about the seriousness of the problem. Once the new treatment plant was completed, life returned to normal.
On the other hand, when the Amherst Board of Selectmen pushed for a moratorium on new building permits in 1985, there was significant pushback in local political discussion and in the courts. The Selectmen (as they were still known back then), noting that there were more than 2,000 possible new housing units in the permitting pipeline — a 25 percent increase in our housing stock — feared that such an increase would overwhelm schools as well as physical infrastructure. The Planning Board and Town Meeting went along, and a moratorium was declared. While the ban on building permits was being litigated in the courts, the Planning Board and its staff used the hiatus to craft a phased growth zoning bylaw to regulate the approval of subdivision plans and the issuance of building permits. (I was the Planning Board chair in 1987, when Town Meeting passed the bylaw.)
Was that moratorium appropriate? While the fears of crowded schools and overtaxed sewers were genuine, the courts found that these concerns did not amount to a real emergency. A better permitting system did emerge from the moratorium period, including the first pieces of an affordable housing policy for Amherst. So, not a real emergency, but not a total mistake either. And, by the way, those looming 2,000 new housing units did not materialize for a very long time.
One problem with the recent zoning-related moratorium proposals is that they have the potential to escalate the problems they are seeking to fix. This is because state zoning laws, which control what local communities can and cannot do, allow developers to freeze local zoning as soon as they submit preliminary plans for subdivisions, commercial buildings, and other structures governed by local zoning codes. We have already seen this with the pending proposal on solar arrays: potential developers have already filed their plans and will not be subject to future changes.
And would the potential problem of large-scale solar developments rise to the level of an emergency? Amherst does have some regulations on the books, so we are not unprepared. And, of course, proponents of solar arrays would argue that the real emergency is not loss of open land or forests but climate change itself!
While calls for moratoriums raise public interest in local issues and provide a symbolic lift to folks who have a special grievance, they are a blunt instrument of policy making. It would be far better for the Town Council to direct the Planning Board and Department to bring them specific responses to specific, perceived problems.
Let’s declare a moratorium on moratoriums.
[Editor’s notes. You can read previous posts about solar energy in Amherst and the proposed moratorium by clicking on the Climate change mitigation category in our menu. Town Council will vote on the proposed moratorium this evening during the regular Council meeting. You can find links to the virtual meeting, agenda, and materials here.]