The First Parish in Bedford, Unitarian Universalist church has appealed from a decision of the Historic District Commission of the Town of Bedford that denied First Parish’s application for a certificate of appropriateness to install solar panels on its Meetinghouse roof.
The complaint filed Superior Court for the County of Middlesex, Commonwealth of Massachusetts claims the decision exceeds the authority of the Commission, was legally untenable, unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious, and violated the rights of the members of First Parish to the free exercise of their religious beliefs under Article II of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
First Parish was established, and its first Meetinghouse was erected, in 1729, shortly after incorporation of the Town of Bedford. The original Meetinghouse was badly damaged in the “great gale” of September 1815, and was replaced by the present Meetinghouse in 1817. The 1817 Meetinghouse was built in the Federalist style based upon a design by noted American architect Asher Benjamin. Portions of the First Parish Meetinghouse maintain their historic appearance, but others do not.
Over the years, as technology has advanced, building codes, construction materials and standards, and the needs of First Parish relative to the Meetinghouse have evolved, there have been multiple alterations to the original design and structure of the Meetinghouse that would be utterly unrecognizable to a parishioner of the church at the time of its construction in 1817.
The current gray asphalt roof shingles on the Meetinghouse have no historical significance. Until 1954 the roof shingles were wooden. In 1991 the Commission approved replacing the shingles on the cupola dome with “lead-coated copper”. In 1999 the Commission approved replacing wooden louvers in the bell tower with fiberglass louvers. And in 2001 the Commission approved replacing wooden louvers in the steeple with fiberglass louvers to match those in the cupola.
Early followers of the Unitarian church included seminal figures of the New England transcendentalist movement, such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In modem times, adherence to the church’s Seven Principles necessarily has involved confronting and mitigating evolving environmental threats, including climate change. As such, Unitarian Universalists across the nation believe that their religion necessarily involves taking action on a personal, congregational and community level to confront and mitigate mankind’s role in causing and exacerbating global warming.
First Parish applied to the Historic Commission for a certificate of appropriateness to construct the solar panels on its roof, and the Commission began the public hearing on April 6, 2016. In a decision that is being widely criticized as what is worst about allowing preservation to trump environmental stewardship, the Commission ultimately denied the application on June 1, 2016.
The complaint filed on June 27, 2016 says the Commission decision was unreasonable, whimsical, arbitrary and capricious in multiple respects including that no member of the public opposed the First Parish solar panel proposal and the evidence supporting the proposal was overwhelming.
The government’s responsive pleading is not due for some weeks, but most commentators expect the nearly 300 year old church of Henry David Thoreau will prevail and the court will annul the decision of the Historic District Commission.