Boston seeks to join state pilot banning gas hookups in new construction

Wu facing pushback in Boston, creating confusion on Beacon Hill

BOSTON MAYOR Michelle Wu said on Tuesday that she wants the city to join a state pilot program allowing 10 municipalities to ban fossil fuel infrastructure in most new construction, but she’s a bit late to the party.

Boston’s participation fits with Wu’s broader climate change vision and would bolster the 10-community experiment administered by the state Department of Energy Resources. But there is no guarantee Boston will be included, and the mayor’s decision is stirring opposition in the city and some confusion on Beacon Hill.

Wu is not deterred. “Boston is ready to go and excited about this opportunity,” she said.

The 10-community experiment was included in the recently passed climate change bill, despite objections from Gov. Charlie Baker, who said it would deter housing construction in the participating communities. Interested communities began applying to participate by filing home rule petitions even before the measure was signed into law. Ten communities have already stepped forward, and one or more of them would have to fall out for Boston to get a shot at participating.

State Sen. Michael Barrett of Lexington, one of the lead negotiators on the bill, said he reached out to Boston multiple times, encouraging the city to participate, with no success.

“The city gave us the cold shoulder unfortunately. Now we’re in uncertain territory,” said Barrett. “The way forward for Boston is very difficult now.”

Barrett’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Jeffrey Roy of Franklin, said he believes it’s not clear whether Boston will be excluded from the 10 communities. He said the original 10 communities all filed before the bill became law, while Boston will be the first to file after the bill became law. He said it’s unclear which communities would be given preference.

“That would be a legal issue that’s going to need some ironing out,” Roy said. “That’s a question we’ll leave to the Department of Energy Resources to resolve.”

Asked about Roy’s comment, Barrett said there is no legal issue to be ironed out. “I wrote that section of the law,” Barrett said. “There is no wiggle room.”

The 10 communities that have already signaled their intention to participate are Acton, Aquinnah, Arlington, Brookline, Cambridge, Concord, Lexington, Lincoln, Newton, and West Tisbury. All of them have 12 top 18 months to satisfy the qualifications, including the requirement that 10 percent of the community’s housing stock meet affordability standards.

Three of the communities – Arlington, Newton, and West Tisbury – don’t currently meet the affordable housing threshold. West Tisbury is particularly far away from the threshold. According to Barrett, communities can be dropped from the list but then it’s up to the Department of Energy Resources to decide whether others should be allowed in, regardless of when they applied.

Wu said Boston waited until after Baker signed the bill into law before announcing its plan to seek a spot in the 10-community experiment. “This was not a solid opportunity until the bill was signed,” she said.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Baker, in fact, signed the bill with deep misgivings about the 10-community experiment. The new law exempts life sciences and health care facilities in the 10 communities from the all-electric requirement, but Baker said an exclusion was also needed for multi-family dwellings to prevent low and moderate-income residents from being priced out of housing. He called the measure exclusionary zoning.

“Multi-family buildings that use only electric alternatives are currently cost-prohibitive,” Baker said in his signing letter.

Greg Vasil, the CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, echoed Baker’s concerns in criticizing Wu’s decision to seek to ban fossil fuels in the construction of new buildings in Boston.

“Construction costs are already too high due to inflation and national supply chain challenges,” Vasil said in a statement. “Banning fossil fuels in new developments will only increase costs further. This ban would be especially problematic in a city like Boston, which produces huge levels of housing and is an economic engine for all development. Housing production is key to overcoming our state’s housing crisis. Instead of taking part in the state’s pilot program to ban fossil fuels in new developments, we believe the city and state should await the results of the pilot program before considering if and how Boston may implement this ban.”

The mayor is also facing pressure from the local gas workers union to not embrace a ban on fossil fuel infrastructure in new construction.
In announcing her decision Tuesday, Wu said the city is eager to maximize the benefit of the 10-community experiment by including the state’s largest city. She predicted Boston’s participation would “help deliver healthy, energy efficient spaces that save our residents and businesses on utilities costs and create local green jobs that will fuel our economy for decades.”

If Boston succeeds in joining the experiment, it would follow the lead of several other major cities, including New York City, Seattle, and Washington, DC.