Harvard delays planning of solar panels on Roslindale parcel

Ed. note: This post has been extensively rewritten to take into account Harvard's decision to postpone any work and to add a statement from somebody in favor of it.

Harvard's Arnold Arboretum says it's put a controversial proposal to put solar panels on an open field at Walter and Weld streets on hold.

Still, five city councilors have written Harvard President Drew Faust to make clear their objections to the plan for the land Harvard owns across from the Arnold Arboretum - and request that Harvard use a neighboring parcel instead..

Harvard had proposed putting the panels on a 6.9-acre parcel now maintained mainly as an open field, with some areas set aside for botanical experiments.

News of the proposal sparked an uproar among neighbors who said the solar panels would violate an agreement the university signed in 2009 to keep the land clear and open to the public in exchange for them dropping their opposition to a research building Harvard wanted to build off Centre Street on a neighboring parcel.

But after a meeting with neighbors earlier this week, the Arboretum has shelved the plans for now. Stephen Schneider, director of operations at the Arnold Arboretum, said in a statement:

The project is not moving forward at this time, and the Arboretum is committed to continuing conversations with abutters and residents with the goal of improving the project. The Arboretum believes strongly in engaging in sustainable and energy efficient practices, and believes installing a ground-mounted, photovoltaic system would be in line with those goals. However the project is not moving forward in order to convene conversations with abutters and neighbors.

The councilors - Tim McCarthy, who represents Roslindale, Michelle Wu, who lives there, and her fellow at-large councilors Annissa Essaibi-George, Michael Flaherty and Ayanna Pressley - say they are all for solar panels, but not on an open field across from the Arboretum that Harvard had pledged would remain undeveloped as condition for putting up a research building nearby.

In their letter to Faust, the councilors say Harvard could erect the solar panels on the "designated development area" around the research building - and that the issue is not reducing Harvard's desire to reduce its carbon footprint but in making the university keep its word, as memorialized in documents its officials signed off on as part of BRA approval:

Contemporary solar technology can work well in many locations. There is ample room within the designated development area for a solar installation, either on undeveloped portions of the parcel or elevated over the parking lot similar to those recently installed over the Roxbury Community College parking lot.

In a posting in the Keep Roslindale Quirky Facebook group, Wu explained why she signed the letter:

For us this is not an issue about delaying renewable energy development, which we all agree is incredibly urgent for us as a society and as elected officials to pursue. This is a siting issue about upholding commitments made to the community after neighbors, the City/BRA, and Harvard negotiated for over three years and then came to a shared understanding about this open space. I’ve posted the language of the relevant restrictions on this parcel below.

If legal commitments made by institutions and corporations to the community are only binding so long as people remember them because government will only enforce them selectively, how can we expect anyone to trust government? In Boston we are trying to take big steps to fight climate change (Community Choice Energy to override the state minimums for renewable energy sourcing and ramp them up quickly, improving cycling infrastructure and public transit, transitioning to net zero development and reducing our municipal carbon footprint) but even these depend on people being able to trust that promises made to the public will be remembered and kept. For me, that accountability is fundamental.

Resident Alan Wright, who supports the idea of solar panels on the land, said the opponents, including the councilors, are simply mistaken about an issue like reducing an institution's carbon footprint that is so important today. In his own post in the Keep Roslindale Quirky group, he writes:

The agreement restricted the placement of buildings on the 7 acre parcel to the north side but allowed the Arboretum management to place other non-enclosed structures that are consistent with the mission of the Arboretum. The solar array is consistent with the mission and the agreement. Other interpretations can be reached only through selective reading and wishful thinking about no change occurring in the world. The array will be placed on removable cement pads, be low to the ground, behind a fence and bush cover, largely not visible from the streets, and not restrict public access to the hill. Unfortunately, a few people, who are not representative of the residents of the Longfellow area nor of Roslindale, have cherry-picked language in the agreement to mislead some public officials to oppose the plan.

Councilors Wu, McCarthy, Essaibi-George, Presley, and Flaherty have been misdirected into thinking they are defending an important principle but are doing so at the expense of making essential progress in protecting the environment of our only home - Earth. You can help reverse this mistake by writing your support of the plan to Mayor Walsh and other officials at Mayor Walsh [email protected]; Brian Golden, Boston Planning and Development Authority, [email protected]; Commissioner William Christopher, Boston Inspectional Services Department, [email protected].

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Tim McCarthy and Michelle Wu:

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Tim McCarthy and Michelle Wu: "Say no to fighting climate change in our back yard."

Following in the footsteps of the Kennedys, who loved wind power until it came to their back yard.

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Voting is closed. 59

Not what they're saying

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The Harvard land is split into two parcels. They're saying don't put it on the parcel the school agreed not to build on, but put it on the parcel it did build on. They're right next to each other.

And they's saying if agreements signed by institutions just get ignored, what's the point?

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Voting is closed. 81

They can't build in a NO BUILD zone

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Harvard has 8 acres on this 14.5 acre parcel where a solar farm if allowable under the deed restriction. Harvard accepted the deed restriction on its property in 2007 as a condition for getting approval to erect a new institutional complex. The deed restriction cannot be changed. The whole purpose of a deed restriction is to tie a property owner's hands in perpetuity. Having gotten what it wanted, Harvard cannot now "undo" the deal. Duh. This is not about whether solar energy is preferable to fossil fuels. Of course it is. This is about where Harvard can legally put this. They need to move their proposal to the adjacent 8 acres where this is allowed.

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Voting is closed. 43

You are misrepresenting what

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You are misrepresenting what the agreement says. It is not a no-build zone. Nowhere is that said, you cannot point to any language that says that. What it does say is no 'permanent enclosed structures' on site but otherwise research work and structures are allowed. It requires a tortured reading and interpretation to suggest solar panels meet the definition of a 'permanent enclosed structure' when they are neither permanent nor enclosed. Maybe you want it to be a no-build zone but it is not. Harvard cannot re-write agreements but neither can neighbors.

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Voting is closed. 24

clarify?

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research work and structures

Indicates that the structure(s) must be there for research purposes. Are the solar panels for research purposes or to absorb light to convert into energy for use in existing structures?

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Harvard NIMBYism

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Would feel differently about this project if Harvard was building solar arrays in their own backyard, or if they gave a damn about climate change. They have tons of acreage all over the place, like empty fields along Soldiers Field road. Drew Faust's house is over 2 acres with easily enough land for this solar array.

Harvard is trying to cut their operating costs with this project, and their first choice is open space in Roslindale, for obvious reasons.

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Voting is closed. 26

The Arboretum is not in

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The Arboretum is not in Cambridge and is botanical preserve. The research at Weld Hill helps sustain and improve that. Your critique of their Cambridge campus may be accurate, though seems a bit over the top. But that has nothing to do with Roslindale or the Arboretum.

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"no build zone" is a myth

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Based on my close reading of the restrictions that are in place, solar panels are absolutely allowed in the area they have been proposed. Buildings (i.e. enclosed structures) are not allowed. A solar panel is not an enclosed structure.

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Do you have a link (or a

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Do you have a link (or a registry Book/Page#) to the deed restriction handy?

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I agree with their point

If we don't hold institutions to their agreements, soon these agreements will be viewed as optional.

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Voting is closed. 43

I'm opposed

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It's supposed to be open land. Would the facebook people be so happy if the city decided to put a bunch of solar panels up in the middle of Fallon Field?

Harvard made a deal with the neighbors, and now they are essentially pissing on the deal. There are other places to put solar panels, places that will not reduce the open space in the area.

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And the land is a part of

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the Arboretum, which has a strange honor of being city land administered by Harvard University.

The Arbs is broken up into 4 parts due to the roads that run through it, but indeed it is all the Arboretum. Perhaps you can suggest that Harvard put up solar panels in the open space areas in your suburb. I assume they never signed any agreements to preserve open space out your way.

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Not "Arboretum" land

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But the parcel of land in question is NOT part of the "Arboretum" but private land that Harvard owns and the location of its Research facility. While the land is open to the public it isn't really part of the Arboretum land that is owned by the City.

I support this proposal. I think it falls within the agreement and is a good use of the land. And it is in the spirit of The Arnold's mission of stewardship.

Also for clarification for everyone:
A public/private partnership, the Arnold Arboretum belongs to the City of Boston and is operated by Harvard University, yet all annual funding comes directly from endowments, gifts, and memberships.

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Voting is closed. 25

Where the solar panel will go

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Where the solar panel will go is NOT Arboretum land. It is privately owned land use by the Arboretum management as a research and development site. The Arboretum proper is owned by the City of Boston and leased by Harvard to run as an arboretum

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Except

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Except on every Arboretum map that the Arboretum puts out, it is.

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For the record.

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This land is not part of the arb. It is privately held by Harvard. The city owns the land on which the arb sits. It leased it to Harvard for a thousand years. I am a proponent of solar and actually would not care if panels were erected here under different circumstances. But holding developers to their commitments is an important public policy that should not be taken lightly just because the proposed use has positive environmental impact.

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The land is owned by Harvard

and is not part of the city-owned/Arboretum administered Arboretum. Just like the land where the Dana Greenhouses are located.

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This parcel

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Was actually purchased by Harvard in 1922 and owned by the University with a fee simple interest; not part of the 1,000-year ground lease from the City of Boston. Though this is certainly part of the Arboretum, which they have dubbed Cosmopolitan Meadow, and which includes species of plants such as yarrow, white heath aster, chicory, oxeye daisy, tansy, blackeyed Susan, birdsfoot trefoil, alsike clover, white clover, bird vetch, perennial ryegrass, etc.

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Voting is closed. 20

But that is not, of course, the point.

The relative value of leaving the land open versus developing it for sustainable and renewable energy -- that's completely irrelevant to the matter at hand. Harvard voluntarily entered into a contractual arrangement under which they got something they wanted in return for a specific promise. They got what they wanted. Now they want to be let out of the promise.

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Voting is closed. 42

Sure but

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The city should be open to renegotiating that agreement if it is in the best interest of the city and it people (and I believe it is).

Past us shouldn't be able to completely hamstring future us from good and positive projects if situations and conditions change.

If Harvard was trying to open a restaurant here, then absolutely no way, but that is not at all the case.

The city should work with Harvard to help get the solar panels placed legally.

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Voting is closed. 23

Best interest is complex

The city should be open to renegotiating that agreement if it is in the best interest of the city and it people (and I believe it is).

Renewable energy is valuable. So is open land accessible to the public. I don't think we should be consuming any of the latter for solar until we have exhausted other potential places to put solar.

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Voting is closed. 31

public use

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I think you can make a strong argument for open land and green space for the sake of wildlife, wildflowers etc. but this land is very underutilized by the public and I don't think public use should be used as an argument against the solar panels. Most of the time the grass is high and you cannot walk there apart from narrow mown paths. So while it is fine to say it should stay free of any built-structures just for the sake of pure open land I don't believe green space is being taken away from the enjoyment of walkers.

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This is a crucial point.

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This is a crucial point. Opponents represent that this is flush meadow with scenic views. The reality is its rocky terrain where nothing can grow except grass and some wild flowers. Neighbors only wanted this left open because they didn't want an institutional research building "in their backyard." This has nothing to do with the value of the green space itself, which is next to nil. That cannot be stated enough.

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Who said walkers?

I don't believe green space is being taken away from the enjoyment of walkers.

Who said walkers? What about wildlife? There are huge differences that come into play when you expand or shrink the size of continuous or semi-contiguous open space parcels: 100 acres in one piece is entirely different, ecologically, than 10 10-acre parcels.

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Does commercial work like residential solar?

Where the solar panel output goes into the grid on a metered basis? If so, there's no reason Harvard needs to use this lot for solar generation vs. covering parking lots at their stadium vs. impacting open green space here. I.e. the proximity of the generation to usage is irrelevant really.

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This is an excellent point.

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This is an excellent point. If Harvard is committed to producing X kilowatt hours - they can do it anywhere. If the Weld Research Facility's parking lot isn't conducive to solar, they can do it on any one of their other lots. It doesn't need to be attached to the building. As long as solar is being used by some part of their campus, it really doesn't matter which part as it all has the same overall effect.

While the property can only grow grasses b/c of soil - it is important habitat to some creatures. I see a lot of wildlife poop when I walk through there.

And this statement is coming from someone who has solar on their house and is hugely devoted to the environment. Let's first put solar on already used land instead of on something green. While the land may be compromised, it's still green cover, and I think that's important.

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The city should be open to

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The city should be open to renegotiating that agreement if it is in the best interest of the city and it people (and I believe it is).

Except this is a legal agreement of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts - not the City of Boston. The agreement has an expiration date that is the same as the lease that Harvard has for the Arboretum. The only way to overturn the Agreement legally is by vote of both Houses of Commonwealth government. Unless the Courts decide the panels are not considered permanent.....

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Your comment illustrates a

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Your comment illustrates a key misunderstanding - locating solar panels at this Weld Hill parcel is not the same as installing solar panels in a public park.

Weld Hill is not park land in the way the 260 acre Arboretum Parkland is.
Weld Hill is private property, part of which is controlled by a deed restriction. The deed restriction says clearly that enclosed structures, i.e. buildings, are not allowed in that area. Solar panels are not buildings.

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O'Malley's District

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This is actually in the small part of Roslindale that Matt O'Malley represents near where the district lines meet. O'Malley didn't sign this opposition letter and is the basically the go-to-councilor on environmental issues. That tells me this is a worthwhile project. Surprised Wu is against this.

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Very close to him

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I bet he could see these new panels from his house, if there weren't all those darn TREES in the way.

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I disagree

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I've dealt with O'Malley's office on issues like this one: A commercial entity cut down all the trees on a deed restricted parcel and started unlawfully using it for parking. O'Malley has been as close to useless as you can get.

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Matt O'Malley

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I think you need to ask him why he is not signing on, before you assume anything

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Missing & misleading information

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Unfortunately, Adam left out very important information in this post. First, it is ESSENTIAL for everyone to understand that the solar panels will NOT be in the Arboretum but on private Harvard owned land behind Hebrew Rehab. Second, the panel will be on the north side to the top of the hill above the existing geothermal system where the are no and cannot be any trees. Third, the land of the hill is very rocky with thin soil so only grasses grow there now. Fourth, the solar array will be less than 6 feet high, surrounded by a fence and bushes, not obstruct public access and be minimally visible from Weld & Centre streets. Fifth, the only restriction on the Arb management in the voluntary land use agreement is on building permanent buildings in the area where the panels will sit. Finally, and most importantly, this opposition is being led be a very few people who do NOT represent the majority of the community. Social media commentary is overwhelmingly in favor of the plan. These few people have cherry picked the language of the agreement and misled the few City Councilors that signed the letter. They need to reverse their position. We are not going to solve the disastrous environmental problems coming down the pike by yielding to a few NIMBYs.

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Voting is closed. 33

Solar panels on the roof

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There is not enough space on the roof. When they designed the building within the constraints forced on them by the community solar panels were not cost effective and the shape of the building along with the greenhouses made it impractical.

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Seriously, Alan?

constraints forced on them by the community

I believe you meant, "Constraints negotiated between them and the community."

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Really disappointed

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Really disappointed in my electeds who wrote or signed onto or this letter. This should be a positive.
NIMBY

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Voting is closed. 31

Solar panels

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Lots of important points missing above: 1) the solar panels will NOT be in the Arboretum but on private land owned by Harvard behind Hebrew Rehab; 2) the neighborhood agreement that Arb management voluntarily entered into does not prohibit the panels only permanent building; 3) the panels will be placed over the buried geothermal system on the north side to the top of the hill where now one walks and no tress exits and cannot be planted; 4), the soil on the hill is very thin & rocky & only grows grass; 5) the panels are less than 6 ft high, will be behind a fence and surrounded by bushes, barely visible form the streets and not obstruct the current public access path. The opposition to this plan is led by a very few NIMBY people who selectively interpreted the agreement and misled the few City Councilors that signed the letter. Dangerous climate change driven by human produced CO2 is hurtling down upon us. We must do everything possible to get off of fossil fuels such as this planned solar array.

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Voting is closed. 23

To restate my point above

Why not put this on already impacted spaces like the roofs of Harvard buildings or parking lots, etc...? Local generation isn't relevant in a regional grid system.

Putting solar panels on highway medians is a much better example of an unused space that open grassland near urban wilds.

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Voting is closed. 31

This is the Arboretum, check

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This is the Arboretum, check their website. The deed restriction wasn't voluntary. It was a requirement by the City in exchange for expanding the Harvard campus. Quid pro quo.

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Original post extensively rewritten

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After I posted about the councilors' letter, I got word that Harvard had decided to talk to residents more before going forward with anything. And Alan Wright posted his reasoning for supporting the proposal.

My apologies for taking so long to update the post - I learned about Alan's post just before I left on what turned into a trek from hell to get the kidlet from Roslindale to Arlington and then get myself back again (late Friday afternoon on roads in the Boston area in the rain: Ye gads!). E-mail from Harvard came while I was in the middle of the journey.

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Thanks.

for updating. Sorry about your drive--no good way from here to there.

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Doesn't have her own car?

One car families have to sort these things out.

Doesn't have her license, maybe? Really not uncommon in this age group in this area.

My son is in the same class year at UMass Amherst as the kidlet, and he's only now getting his license. My older son just finished college, and he does not have a license (and really, really, really doesn't want one). He's excited for his brother to have one.

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No license

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She lives in a big city with a mostly functioning mass-transit system, so she's decided she doesn't need one. Except in those rare cases where she needs to get to a remotish part of Arlington near the Belmont line, but that's why we have parents :-)

I get it. I didn't get a license until I was 22 and a couple months from graduation and realized I'd need a car to get into small-town journalism.

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Textbook NIMBY

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The area in question is perfectly suited to solar panels. Despite these histrionics from some people including elected officials, no one uses this area. Weld Hill has public walking paths that will remain untouched. This area is barely visible from the road due to topography so the couple homeowners there won’t even see it. These people fighting this are textbook NIMBYs. They fought an apartment building on the corner, another one down the road, and even a single family home on an as of right lot on this street. They don’t want anything anywhere and Tom Menino caved to them ten years ago with the agreement at issue now. The agreement itself only prohibits buildings and nothing else, so they’re misrepresenting what it says. It’s a public document, take a look yourselves. The city should not cave to this vocal minority.

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I use it

no one uses this area.

I use it.

I use it in the same sense that I use the Alaskan national wildlife refuge, even though I've never set foot in Alaska.

Suggested readings on this point include Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey.

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Exactly

Well put.

Again, why here vs. coming to an agreement with the Dedham Mall or Arsenal Mall or something to cover the roof of that with solar panels? Energy can be generated local to anywhere but it's consumed on a regional basis so proximity is totally irrelevant.

Sticking to Harvard property - put solar panels on top of the pool and the Murr Center next to the stadium first.

https://www.google.com/maps/place/Harvard+University/@42.3678352,-71.125297,256m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m13!1m7!3m6!1s0x89e370a5cb30cc5f:0xc53a8e6489686c87!2sCambridge,+MA!3b1!8m2!3d42.3736158!4d-71.1097335!3m4!1s0x89e377427d7f0199:0x5937c65cee2427f0!8m2!3d42.3769976!4d-71.1166477

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That’d work except the Weld

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That’d work except the Weld Hill facility and greenhouses are in Roslindale, not Allston or Cambridge. So that makes no sense.

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Interesting comments. There

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Interesting comments. There are obviously people out there who are so obsessed with their 'agreements' that they forget what they're for. Never mind the outcome - we have to hold them to their agreements! The planet is burning up? That's not my problem - I have an agreement and I'm sticking to it.

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Voting is closed. 17

Surveyors

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On wed. I saw two surveyors next to building. I asked “is this for the solar panels” and they quickly said “yup”. So they are moving forward with something. This was the space south east of the building.

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Location