Boston has a history of sending home rule petitions to the state Legislature only to see them die a quiet death behind closed doors, but, in an unusual twist this week, the city councilor who is pushing one such a proposal could also be involved in its consideration on Beacon Hill.
The councilor is Lydia Edwards, who was inaugurated to the state Senate in January but will continue to represent East Boston, Charlestown, and the North End on the Council until the end of April. The proposal is a home rule petition Edwards said would empower the city to halt certain projects that raise environmental concerns — including a controversial electric substation proposal that has drawn vocal opposition in Eastie.
Edwards’s measure, which she announced Monday, would make three “targeted changes” to city zoning legislation, according to a release. Specifically, it would empower the city’s building commissioner to enforce the state law by issuing a stop work order for projects that violate legally established environmental rights; remove a current zoning exemption for utility companies; and direct the Boston Zoning Commission to establish clear rules for zoning review of energy projects.
“Residents of the City of Boston have repeatedly been denied environmental rights which are fundamental to our state constitution,” said Edwards in a statement. “Where justice has been denied, we will legislate new protections and safeguards for residents against energy companies that have abused their power for too long.”
A home rule petition need State House approval to take effect, and during a brief phone interview on Monday, Edwards said she thought there was a “real thirst for environmental justice” on Beacon Hill, adding that the proposal would not affect communities outside of Boston. Before it heads to the State House, the proposal would need local approval, something Edwards will seek before she leaves the council in the coming months.
Critics of the substation, planned for East Eagle Street, have maintained that East Boston, which is home to Logan International Airport, is already burdened with environmental problems, and they question whether the infrastructure is necessary. They are also concerned that the site will flood, which they fear could lead to an explosion or fire. The project would be located near Chelsea Creek.
Advocates who are opposed to the project applauded Edwards’s proposal on Monday, with John Walkey, the director of waterfront and climate justice initiatives at GreenRoots, saying “This necessary tool will center community and environmental justice.”
Dwaign Tyndal, executive director of Alternatives for Community and Environment, said in a statement that the “legislation allows us to create a just system that centers people, planet, and a green future.”
Eversource, the utility behind the project, has said it needs the substation to meet the growing demand for electricity in East Boston. The company has said the substation’s design exceeds local and federal flood-elevation standards and that the structure would be built to withstand 500-year floodwaters and would take into account rising sea levels.
In a Monday statement, an Eversource spokesman said, “The need for more electricity in East Boston is immediate, and this substation will directly serve our customers and help meet demand there, ensuring safe and reliable power to homes and businesses in the fastest-growing neighborhood in Boston. East Boston is currently the only neighborhood in the city without a substation and relies on power supplied by a substation in Chelsea that is at capacity without room to expand, which could trigger power outages especially on hot summer days.”
The statement continued, “We are working diligently to be good neighbors and remain committed to environmental standards— including but not limited to, making environment improvements along the Chelsea Creek, engaging with community members on a number of featured upgrades including the design of the substation façade—all as part of our multi-million dollar investment in the East Boston neighborhood.”
Last fall, more than 80 percent of Boston voters opposed the substation in a non-binding ballot question. According to Edwards’s release, certain state approvals for the project are currently under appeal.
The race to succeed Edwards as the city councilor for District 1 is ongoing. Two candidates, Gabriela “Gigi” Coletta and Tania Del Rio, have submitted enough valid signatures to land on a municipal ballot, according to the city’s elections department. The city is currently verifying the signatures of a third candidate, Robert Pirelli. If Pirelli has enough valid signatures, the three will face off in a special preliminary election on April 5, followed by a May 3 special general election between the two vote-getters.
If Pirelli, does not have enough signatures it would eliminate the need for the April preliminary election.