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“The month of net zero” got off to an uncertain start Tuesday at a Planning Board meeting, with all 24 residents who spoke voicing support for a zoning proposal that would require new, large development in Cambridge to meet the highest environmental standards. There were roughly another couple dozen supporters in the audience.

The board, though, after chairman Hugh Russell said there would be no votes taken, indicated it did not understand the details of the proposal, called the Connolly petition, and would not support it, deferring to a task force created by the City Council last month.

Since the petition’s filing in June it has come to dominate the city’s governmental calendar, given its potential impact on development throughout the city and beyond. After Tuesday’s board meeting comes tonight’s “Getting to Net Zero: A Panel Discussion” from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Cambridge Main Library, 449 Broadway. The proposal is also getting hearings in the council’s Ordinance Committee and special task force.

Changes to the petition

On Tuesday, Michael Connolly, “first signer” of the petition, and co-writer Quinton Zondervan presented clarifications and proposed amendments of the petition to the board. These include relaxed terminology, from “maximize” to “strives to maximize” and a framework for how to achieve net zero: a reduce-produce-purchase plan to eliminate the emission of greenhouse gases by requiring development to be built energy efficient, generate renewable energy onsite and use approved off-site renewable energy with the goal of achieving net zero emissions.

Russell, however, inturrupted Connolly less than three minutes into his opening presentation, telling supporters of the petition that the board would not be going through it “paragraph by paragraph.”

When opened for public comment, two dozen citizens spoke in favor of the petition, all brandishing a green placard that stated “I support the Net Zero Petition.” No one spoke against the petition. Many demanded action be taken now to address the energy impact of large building plans Cambridge has in its pipeline, including construction that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has planned for 26 acres in Kendall Square.

Pride and moral obligation were also stressed by proponents of net zero. Many called for Cambridge to become a leader in the development and innovation of energy efficiency for the country, helping set a national standard. Others warned of Cambridge’s wet future if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t cut; a study last year in the journal Science showed that much of Cambridge will be submerged when climbing temperatures cause sea levels to rise.

“We’re not scientists”

In assessing the Planning Board’s expertise in assessing an energy-effiencieny zoning petition, member Steven Cohen said, “we’re not scientists.”

In assessing the Planning Board’s expertise in assessing an energy-effiencieny zoning petition, member Steven Cohen said, “we’re not scientists.”

After public comment, Planning Board members responded with a varied level of support and understanding of the proposal.

“I think this board can encourage the outcomes of this inquiry to be as bold as we can be,” board member Steven Winter said.

Most agreed, though, that the board itself doesn’t have the technical expertise to know what’s enough in regard to energy efficiency. As board member Steven Cohen said, “we’re not scientists.”

The board ultimately decided to defer  to the task force’s work in addressing the proposal.

“This issue is not a simple matter,” chairman Hugh Russell said, “so we do it the Cambridge way. A balanced committee will be formed. It shouldn’t be expected that we recommend this petition to the council without the full process of that committee.”

Also on the board’s agenda

bullet-gray-smallA second public hearing shifting 22 parking spaces to office and laboratory use at 150 Second St. from a residential building at 159 First St. The amendment would still meet the obligation to provide one parking space per residential unit. The motion was granted.

bullet-gray-smallEducation First presented an application to add educational uses to their existing building at 1 Education St. in NorthPoint. EF has a second building under construction that was already granted educational and office uses but hoped to maintain flexibility between the two buildings by allowing both to be educational centers. The next hearing on the issue is Oct. 22.

This story was updated Oct. 3, 2013, to correct that the petition’s goal is “achieving net zero emissions.” It was updated Oct. 5, 2013, to note Zondervan presented information to the board.

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