Greg Fishbone

Jun 232014

We all like to keep warm in the winter, and none of us wants to pay more for our utilities than we absolutely have to, so it might be tempting to support the proposed natural gas pipeline (Northeast Energy Direct) currently projected to cut through Groton on its way from the fracking fields of western Pennsylvania to a distribution center in Dracut.

But let’s set aside the assumption that this particular pipeline is our only option, or even the best among several options. Nobody denies that New England needs more energy. Nobody denies that a new natural gas transmission line could provide some of that energy. But we, as electricity ratepayers, would have to pour billions of our own dollars into this project. And we, as an impacted town, would have to live with the added danger, devaluation, and environmental degradation for perhaps fifty to a hundred years. So we, as citizens of a democracy, really need to do our homework on this issue.

A natural gas pipeline is a long-term fixture. During the lifetime of this pipeline, the price of natural gas will almost certainly rise from the current historic lows, while the price of wind and solar power will almost certainly continue to fall. Given these cost trends, should we really be making such a large public investment to increase the fossil fuels in our energy portfolio?

During the lifetime of this pipeline, a vast new field of offshore wind turbines is set to come online. A flood of fresh hydroelectric power is set to flow down to us from Canada. Towns across Massachusetts will continue to build solar farms, including two proposed for Groton. There may well come a time when we are ready to start weaning ourselves off fossil-powered electricity — but how much harder would that be with such massive infrastructure bringing a steady supply to our doorstep?

Our current natural gas shortfall hits us hard in the peak evening hours during the coldest days of the coldest winters. We could fix this problem by spending billions of dollars on a new pipeline. Or we could fix the leaks in our existing pipelines, add natural gas storage capacity to our power plants, add battery backups to our electrical grid, and implement conservation programs to reduce our demand. That second plan is the one that preserves our neighborhoods and saves our environment.

There are other pipeline projects already in the works. There are other, less destructive pathways this pipeline could take, using existing rights of way along highways, railways, utility lines, and existing pipelines. There are plenty of pathways that don’t go under our high school campus. So why would we want to put 129 miles of 30- or 36-inch pipeline in places where there have never been such pipelines before?

Traditionally, natural gas pipelines are paid for by the companies that build them, using the proceeds from long-term contracts that prove their viability. That’s called capitalism. So why would this pipeline be funded, instead, by a tariff on our utility bills? Is it good public policy to make ratepayers shoulder all the risks while the nation’s third-largest energy company reaps all the profits? Should we be forced to invest in a project that isn’t viable enough to happen at all without a public subsidy?

These are questions to think about, to ask of Kinder Morgan’s representatives, and to include in the letters we write to our elected officials and policy makers. Do your own research. Find your own answers. But the more I learn about this pipeline, the worse it smells.

–Greg R. Fishbone, Main Street

Oct 272013

Dear Editor:

The diehard few who stay to the end of our current Town Meeting (the second segment begins at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday 10/29/13 in the Middle School — Ed.) will be presented with Article 21, which proposes to revise Chapter 153 of Groton’s municipal code. This is the chapter that authorizes our Historic District Commission, the HDC, to preserve the character and integrity of our historic downtown and Farmer’s Row areas.

Article 21 will be championed by HDC Chairman Dan Barton. I had the privilege of witnessing Dan in action during three HDC meetings last year, where I was awed by his aesthetic passion, attention to detail, and depth of knowledge. At Dan’s side will be my good friend and colleague, Bob Collins. I would support almost anything promoted by Dan and Bob, these two local legends and personal heroes of mine. I would expect any collaboration of theirs to bring new levels of awesome to our town. But somehow, this time, when they combined their super powers to bring us Article 21, the result was a steaming pile of failure.

Dan and Bob may tell Town Meeting, as they told the Board of Selectmen, that revisions are needed to align our town by-laws with state statute MGL 40c, the real source of authority for our HDC and all other historic district commissions across Massachusetts. The implication will be that our current by-law is outdated and hasn’t kept up with the changing world around us—except that it actually has.

Chapter 153 has kept Groton law perfectly in synch with MGL 40c since 1964. As the state statute has changed, our by-law has automatically incorporated every new update. As courts have clarified the meaning of the terms and their practical application, our by-law has automatically applied every new precedent. Today, the version of Chapter 153 already in use represents the state of the art in historic district commission code. No other city or town in Massachusetts has a more up-to-date version than ours.

So what will Dan’s and Bob’s revision do? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. If this article passes, we will be adding paragraph after paragraph after paragraph of advisory verbiage with no more legal impact than the random characters your cat creates while sleeping on a computer keyboard.
As a general principle, text that merely advises us about the law should never be inserted into the law. Our laws are long and complicated enough already without extraneous matter that distracts from the text that actually does stuff. But Article 21 isn’t just a sloppy way to write municipal code. Even though these added paragraphs of cruft won’t have any effect on the law, they have great potential to cause harm to the public at large.

Let me reveal a little secret of the legal profession: “settled law” is whatever supports your client’s position, while “legal ambiguities that need to be cleared up” are all the things that support the other side. Bob has done an amazing advocacy job for the HDC, finding every bit of “settled law” that has ever been used to argue for an expansion of HDC authority, while omitting the “legal ambiguities” that tend to preserve the rights of individual residents.

When every argument is framed to be most favorable to the HDC and elevated into the by-law, most homeowners will no longer recognize that text as mere legal opinion. Can Dan require residents to build a fence inside the district because he doesn’t like the looks of something outside the district? Bob says he can, but the courts haven’t yet settled the matter one way or the other. Inserting only the HDC’s position on unsettled points of law will have a chilling effect on residents who will now be fully informed as to the HDC’s claims while remaining ignorant of their own rights and potential counter-claims.

But even if we were to create an assessment of HDC authority that’s absolutely accurate and fair to everyone, it would become less and less accurate over time, with every new bit of case law or statutory revision. Our current code automatically incorporates these changes, but the proposed advisory code would not. Town Meeting would need to revisit this code again and again, or defer that task again and again, until future residents in 2053 might still be relying on outdated advice from 2013.

The HDC and district residents could surely benefit from Bob’s expert knowledge on historic district law, even if Article 21 is voted down. Could a version of Bob’s general guidance be put on the HDC’s web page? Sure. Would it be helpful to have as a brochure at HDC meetings? Of course. Might it be mailed to every household in the historic districts? Why not! Putting general guidance into a format that residents can easily recognize as general guidance will preserve homeowner rights. Doing so will also make that guidance easier to maintain and update, while keeping town by-laws as simple and uncluttered as possible.

A vote of no on Article 21 is a no-brainer.

–Greg R. Fishbone, Main Street Historic District #2

Feb 282013

Dear Editor,

In December, an armed gunman forced his way into an elementary school in a New England town much like our own. There, he shot and killed twenty children, six staff members, and himself. Since then we”ve seen about thirty gun deaths in the United States every day—the equivalent of another Newtown massacre, again and again, day after day, with no end in sight.

This tragedy has prompted a national debate on the issues of mental health reform, classroom security, and gun safety. I was glad to see this discussion also taking place on a local level this month, initiated by Brooks Lyman”s letter to The Groton Line entitled, “Consider the Second Amendment: It Guarantees That the Citizens May Be Armed.” I actually found myself agreeing with much of Mr. Lyman”s thesis, as well as I was able to follow it:

  • Gun ownership in the United States is traditionally recognized as one of our God-given or natural rights;
  • Our Founding Fathers encouraged citizens to join well-regulated militia groups for community defense; and
  • One potential task the Founders foresaw for such a militia was to deter or help to overthrow an overreaching Federal government, if needed.

All of these things are historically accurate statements. And while most lawful gun owners today arm themselves for the practical purposes of self-defense, property protection, hunting, or recreational marksmanship, Mr. Lyman is technically correct in proclaiming his God-given, Constitutionally protected right to safely and responsibly stockpile weapons of his choosing in case of government tyranny, zombie apocalypse, alien invasion, or whatever other catastrophe he expects might happen any day now.

Where Mr. Lyman lost me was in the subsequent tangle of faulty logic and unsupported conclusions. Setting aside the rant about not being able to sue the police when criminals drive their cars into Groton, or the revelation that most mass shooters are liberals off their Ritalin, Mr. Lyman seemed to believe he could strike a bargain to not have his Second Amendment rights limited in any way as long as he pledged not to challenge the First Amendment rights of anyone else. This is particularly silly, as the Supreme Court has consistently upheld limited restrictions to both First and Second Amendment rights in the interest of public safety.

Mr. Lyman”s letter notably mocked the effectiveness of gun-free school zones. This could have been the start of a legitimate policy debate, if only Mr. Lyman understood that these zones aren’t really gun-free in an absolute sense. They are gun-free with the exceptions you might reasonably expect. Gun-free school zones can be patrolled by armed security guards, law enforcement officers, or anyone else who is specifically authorized by the school to carry a gun. But if you don”t have authorization, there are real consequences to bringing a gun to school, and real deterrence.

Mr. Lyman seems to believe that shopping malls and movie theaters are similarly mandated gun-free zones, instead of private businesses that decide for themselves what customers are or are not allowed to bring inside. Movie theaters are gun-free zones in the same way that they are outside snack-free zones, and are often kept secure by police or security guards who really do get to carry guns (and possibly snacks).

There are four gun safety measures before Congress right now. One is an incredibly popular provision to eliminate loopholes in our universal background check system, so it keeps deadly weapons away from dangerous individuals as originally intended. The second is to provide armed guards to schools that want them, similar to a proposal by NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre. The third would make gun trafficking a Federal crime, allowing law enforcement to crack down on straw purchasers with clean records who can currently buy unlimited guns on behalf of gang members and other shady individuals. The fourth is a ban on assault weapons and oversized magazines for which no private citizen would ever have reasonable need. Even folks who are actively opposed to one or two of these measures should be able to get behind the rest.

I hope we can all have a respectful and productive discussion on these issues, dispel some common misconceptions, and find constructive ways to make our schools and public spaces safer for everyone.

Respectfully submitted,

Greg R. Fishbone