Local reps, senators speak to focus on solar, transportation this legislative session

  • Legislators met with the League of Women Voters of Franklin County Saturday morning in a Virtual Legislative Coffee, during which they highlighted climate change and transportation as two of the biggest challenges to take on this legislative session. SCREENSHOT

  • State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and other local legislators met virtually with the League of Women Voters of Franklin County Saturday morning to discuss goals for the upcoming legislative session. SCREENSHOT

Staff Writer
Published: 3/21/2022 11:45:10 AM
Modified: 3/21/2022 11:44:21 AM

While the coffee had to be made at home by each individual attending, the League of Women Voters of Franklin County held a Virtual Legislative Coffee conversation with the region’s elected representatives Saturday morning, during which they highlighted climate change and transportation as two of the biggest challenges to take on this legislative session.

State Reps. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, Susannah Whipps, I-Athol, and Paul Mark, D-Peru, were joined by state Sens. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, as they asked constituents what specific needs they should focus on.

Much of the discussion revolved around the unfolding issue of solar siting in Western Massachusetts and the way environmental conservation can meet green energy needs without clear-cutting forests or using fertile farmland.

“The perception I’ve heard (from eastern Massachusetts) … is that we folks are against solar and this is a bunch of NIMBYism (Not in My Back Yard),” said Nancy Polan, a director of Northampton’s League of Women Voters. “Of course we’re for solar, environmentally sensitive solar. … They need to understand that protecting our natural lands has got to be extremely centered and given top priority out here in our forests.”

Comerford agreed that the perception is “nonsense” and that solar is a great green energy source, but it cannot come at the cost of our forests, which sequester carbon and help reduce the effects of climate change.

“We want solar, but we want to be sure we get it right,” Comerford said. “We want the state to give us a prescription we can stand by, that our communities can stand by.”

She highlighted dual-use solar as an “interesting” idea, but these thoughts need to be fleshed out further so both legislators and farmers can use it most effectively.

Hinds added to Comerford’s thoughts, saying that anything involving the climate must protect our forests.

“Natural carbon sequestration needs to be a part of our climate strategy,” he said. “We have some work to do with our colleagues to understand this.”

In terms of solar zoning and siting, Blais co-sponsored Bill H.4331, which would allow municipalities to “reasonably regulate solar siting” and make it easier for residents to install solar arrays on their roofs.

Blais noted, however, that utility companies in the state are going to have to work with the Legislature to update the electric grid, as future energy needs may not be met by the current grid.

“Right now, our antiquated grid is not going to allow us to meet our clean energy goals,” Blais said.

The conversation soon shifted to transportation, including the study on a northern tier passenger rail service that would run from North Adams to Greenfield to Boston. Blais noted it’s “particularly disappointing when we see the MBTA get a $60 million increase,” while the Pioneer Valley and Franklin Regional transit authorities “receive nothing.”

While the numbers may not reflect it, Comerford said there is a “growing collaboration and focus on a regional rail footprint.”

“We’re trying to drive a bunch of different conversations all at once,” she said. “We’re tuned into rail.”

With American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and infrastructure money in the pipeline, Comerford said it is essential to seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

“We understand the generational implication we’re faced with, with all this federal money coming in,” Comerford said. “It’s important for us to do everything we can and to go as far as we can in terms of rail infrastructure.”

The legislators thanked the nearly two dozen people who attended virtually and advised them to keep in touch about various issues to ensure their voices are heard.

Hinds, who is running for lieutenant governor, said “it’s always inspiring to have people who are so attuned” to local and state government as it keeps people accountable. “It makes me feel good that the infrastructure of our democracy is alive and well.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.

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