Last year, Town Meeting voted to fund construction of a new police station after more than a decade of delays and amendments to the design. While that building’s steel frame is rapidly taking shape in the center of Lexington, one final project component has yet to be approved by Town Meeting: a solar panel system and canopy that would allow the new building to be a net-zero project, in alignment with Lexington’s goal to maximize renewable energy in new buildings under the Integrated Building Design & Construction Policy approved by the Select Board and School Committee in 2019.
In a statement at last spring’s Town Meeting, Select Board members noted that they “voted unanimously to support bringing whatever project is found to be satisfactory to the stakeholders to a future Town Meeting,” with the goal of synching solar construction with the police station construction. Since then, project architects and Town staff have worked through several public meetings, especially Historic Districts Commission meetings, to refine a design that committee members feel meets the Town’s sustainability goals while fitting with the historic character of the Town Center (which falls under the jurisdiction of the HDC).
That design has evolved into a 20-foot tall, 14,000 square-foot solar canopy over the parking lot behind Fletcher Field that would generate approximately 330,000 kilowatts of energy to power the new police station. Article 16i, up for consideration at Town Meeting in a few weeks, requests appropriating $3.4 million to fund the project. (You can view renderings of the proposed canopy from different angles here.)
But despite the many public meetings and changes to the project design in response to committee feedback – including a recent adjustment to the canopy angle to preserve more trees – one group of stakeholders contend they have been left out of the public process, and are even calling for Town Meeting to delay approval of this project for a few months to a year until they can weigh in meaningfully on the design: Abutters, especially in the neighborhood surrounding Fletcher Park.
The frustration of many neighbors was apparent in a community meeting on Tuesday attended virtually and in person by at least 70 people. Town Manager Jim Malloy, Public Facilities Director Mike Cronin and architect Jeff McElravy heard concerns from community members who argued that the structure would change the character of their neighborhood by eclipsing their current view dominated by trees and the green space of Fletcher Park.
“They’re calling it a canopy, but it’s like a 20-foot parking garage,” neighborhood resident Ted Page said in an interview with LexObserver. Page was among residents who advocated for the creation of Fletcher Park in the first place about 20 years ago, when the Town had proposed paving over the same land.
Residents especially took issue with the proposed canopy height, which they said the trees providing a partial screen between homes and the parking lot would not suffice to block. They said they were concerned new trees planted would take a while to grow to hide the canopy, while existing trees might not screen the canopy enough.
“We love that open space; we like to see the sky,” resident Sally Lehman said at Tuesday’s meeting. “A parking structure just feels so counter to what our historic district feels like.”
Page said he first found out the details of the proposed solar canopy by chance when he saw it listed on a Select Board meeting agenda in February. While he emphasized that he supports clean energy and solar energy in general, “I was really taken aback and appalled by the scale of [the structure],” he said, adding that he only received an abutters’ notice by mail this month. (Malloy said that the Town expanded the abutter notifications from residents within 100 feet to residents within 200 feet of the entire police station project ahead of Tuesday’s meeting.)
“Thank God we live in a town that does have sustainability goals,” Page said. “We’ve got to do this stuff, we’ve got to do something. Just not this.”
At that Feb. 13 Select Board meeting Page attended, Vice Chair Doug Lucente asked whether abutters had been notified about the project; Cronin responded that the project team had wanted to wait for design input from the Select Board before asking for neighborhood input.
“A lot of us here are really, really, really angry” and feel blindsided by the short notice of outreach to abutters, barely a month ahead of Town Meeting’s planned vote, Page said.
Since February’s Select Board meeting, Page said he and a few other neighborhood residents have channeled that anger into a working group to draft different configurations that would allow the solar structure to be shorter, similar to an alternative design with more than one structure previously considered by the HDC. Town staff and project collaborators have said that the height of the single structure is important to allow public safety vehicles to pass beneath it.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the chair of Sustainable Lexington, Dan Voss, noted that the committee had already considered several alternative areas throughout town where solar could and could not be built. “There has been a detailed analysis of the town; we know every square foot where we can build solar in the town,” he said. “If we don’t strive to do this in already developed areas, then there are greater trade-offs. And if we don’t strive to do this as a whole, as a community, we’re just pushing the problem to our neighboring communities.”
A few community members questioned why the solar panel system could not make use of next-door Cary Hall’s roof space. On Tuesday, Cronin said that the Historic Districts Commission has opted to preserve the building’s slate roof to be consistent with its historic fabric, and said the Town was not aware of a solar system that would work for this roof. He added that the east-facing roof is not ideal for solar panels.
If the project were delayed for a year, Cronin said it might add at least $300,000 to the project cost between inflation and additional costs for excavation. The police station is expected to be completed next spring, so he hopes that the solar canopy can also be completed by then.
In response to abutter criticism of the public input process, Malloy and Cronin offered two different responses to community members.
“There has been a lot of public discussion on this for a number of years,” Malloy said. “Do I think that residents sometimes have a responsibility to make sure that they’re aware of what’s going on? Yes, I do.”
Cronin added, “Do I think that we do everything right? I don’t. Do we make mistakes? You bet, we absolutely do. Could we fix the process and make it a little more engaging? Of course we can…I think we hear you, we hear the feedback from the folks, I think there’s a process that needs to be identified and maybe polished a little bit.”
In an email to LexObserver, Select Board Chair Jill Hai wrote that four board members had so far declined to take positions on Article 16i, wanting to hear the feedback from Tuesday’s abutters meeting. She anticipates that board members will discuss positions on this article, among others, at their meeting on Monday.
Town Meeting will consider and vote on Article 16i on Wednesday, April 12.