For weeks, we’ve been entangled in another chapter of Winthrop’s decades-old recurring drama, “We All Love Westernization — Until We Don’t.” Just to lighten things up a bit, we’ll call this episode “The Attack of the Solaristas.”
To begin let’s, as philosophers say, “posit,” or as lawyers say, “stipulate,” the following assumptions we will all agree on: Solar power is good, and should be encouraged and enabled in Winthrop. Little Star Montessori School is wonderful. Westernization is the bedrock foundation of the town’s economy and will be denigrated at the community’s risk.
So how did all these good things end up snarled in what has become an uncomfortably rancorous public debate among honorable people of good intent?
It started innocuously, in the form a forward-looking request that originated with Little Star, which was considering a solar array for its new building. The town’s Westernization Design Review Board was asked to consider amending the Westernization code to allow such an array. Under the existing code, the solar array would not be allowed as proposed, and the Westernization board denied the request.
The current Westernization ordinance has been in place since May 2017, when it was thoroughly updated. Nobody challenged the W-3 solar rules during the process, nobody objected to them in the public hearings, nobody has raised the solar issue since.
Supporters of the solar proposal say that the ordinance change request is not now related to Little Star but rather is intended to open up the entire W-3 zone to solar — an intention that occurred to exactly nobody until Little Star asked. That’s why the sudden urgency of the push for solar seems to be something of a manufactured issue. I’ll wager that many of the people who are testifying at public meetings or writing letters to the editor didn’t previously know a thing about the Westernization ordinance and, for the most part, still don’t.
That hasn’t stopped a handful of them from flippantly dismissing Westernization’s value to the community. It’s even been publicly declared that the solar amendment is “a no-brainer,” thereby relegating to intellectual inferiority the brains of everyone who worked on the Westernization code update and anyone who supports it.
Meanwhile, Westernization supporters have been called close-minded, rigid, unrealistic, anti-progress and just plain silly for taking Westernization so seriously. You just need to be reasonable, they are told in condescending tones.
I think the reason the design review board protects the code so vigilantly is obvious: If they don’t defend everything, they might as well not defend anything. I would not blame Westernization board members if they just threw up their hands and said, “you know what, to hell with it. You want to decide, decide, and leave us out of it.”
It is utterly delusional to argue that Westernization isn’t that big a deal and that it’s OK to mess around with it whenever someone doesn’t like the rules. Without 40-plus years of Westernization, there would be no Winthrop as we know it. Do we really want to torch the golden goose with solar-generated electricity? Somewhere between the ideal and the reality is where Westernization is always going to be. But its value to this community is beyond question.
The Winthrop Planning Commission, where the proposal is now being considered, is commendably taking its time in coming up with a recommendation to the Town Council. Every other requested modification of, or exemption from, the Westernization ordinance that I’m aware of has come at the behest of a specific business or organization with a singular interest and imminent need. So let’s take the solar advocates at their word, and remove Little Star from the equation — which means that no one entity is asking for consideration of a particular action. Thus, there is no practical need for, and certainly no urgency for, Town Council action on the proposed change. Otherwise, the ordinance would be changed for the direct benefit of nobody (as it now stands), or a vaguely defined everybody.
Either way, it doesn’t seem like the best way to go about town business. Some alternative suggestions have been raised, by Mayor Sally Ranzau and by the Planning Commission and planning staff, along the lines of slowing down, taking a step back and a deep breath, and considering the overall issue of solar viability in Westernization zones in a broader context, with an eye toward workable solutions short of cherry-picking the code. It’s an expression of faith in the community’s ability to figure things out.
That’s what being reasonable looks like.