Superior Court Rules in Favor of First Parish in Bedford’s Solar Panel Project

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Submitted by First Parish in Bedford, Unitarian Universalist

The First Parish in Bedford, Unitarian Universalist’s goal of running on renewable energy came a lot closer to reality this week.  A Massachusetts Superior Court judge ordered the Town of Bedford’s Historic District Commission (HDC) to grant the church permission to install solar panels on the sanctuary roof.  Concluding that the HDC’s denial of the solar panel project was “arbitrary and exceeds its authority”, and by reversing that denial, the Court paved the way for First Parish to proceed with its plans to reduce the building’s carbon footprint in order to mitigate the effects of global climate change.

The Seventh Principle of the Unitarian Universalist faith is “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  Based upon the Seventh Principle, Unitarian Universalist churches around the country have been installing solar panels, including on many historic buildings.

The First Parish in Bedford is committed to taking action based on the Seventh Principle.  First Parish has earned the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “Green Sanctuary” designation and has an active Climate Justice group.  In 2015, the congregation adopted a Resolution Declaring Our Right to a Livable Climate.

First Parish in Bedford was established in 1730 and the current church building was erected in 1817.  Spearheaded by parishioner Karl Winkler in 2014, First Parish embarked on a comprehensive program to reduce the church building’s greenhouse gas emissions.  By insulating the 19th-century building and replacing HVAC equipment, the church has already reduced its natural gas consumption by 75%.  The next step was to install solar panels on the church roof in order to sustainably generate most of the church’s electricity on site and further reduce the church’s reliance on natural gas.

Unfortunately, the solar panel project has been on hold since June 1, 2016, when Bedford’s HDC denied the church’s application to install the panels.  All exterior modifications to buildings in Bedford’s historic district, including First Parish, need a “certificate of appropriateness” from the HDC.  After three public hearings, during which many members of the Bedford community expressed enthusiastic support for the project, the HDC voted 3-2 against granting First Parish a certificate of appropriateness for the project.

Following the HDC’s denial, First Parish’s only recourse was to appeal to the Massachusetts Superior Court.  This week’s decision by the Court comes after 2 years of legal proceedings during which the crisis of climate change has only become more urgent.  The president of First Parish’s board, Catherine van Praagh, lamented the delay, citing this summer’s catastrophic wildfires, floods, and heat waves as evidence of the increased moral imperative to do everything we can to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Further delays are possible because the HDC does have the right to appeal the Court’s decision.  However, First Parish’s legal counsel are confident that the Court’s decision would be upheld if the HDC were to appeal.  First Parish has been represented by Sander Rikleen, a partner at the Boston law firm of Sherin and Lodgen; Associate David Michel of Sherin and Lodgen;  Debra Squires-Lee while a partner at Sherin and Lodgen prior to her appointment to the bench; and Rebecca Neale, of the Law Office of Rebecca G. Neale.

First Parish in Bedford is pleased with the Court’s decision and hopes that the solar panel project can now proceed smoothly.  Senior Minister John Gibbons stated, “This ruling makes it possible for us to give more than lip-service to our religious values, to walk our talk, and to live in greater harmony with the rhythms of nature.”