15-month solar moratorium approved by Athol voters, 180-2 

  • The proposed moratorium on ground-mounted solar arrays of 5,000 square feet or larger was approved unanimously, 190-0, by Athol special Town Meeting voters Monday night in Liberty Hall. Greg Vine

  • Athol resident Dennis Killay speaks in favor the solar array moratorium to the audience of other residents and Selectboard members in the background. Greg Vine

Published: 7/23/2019 9:55:17 PM
Modified: 7/25/2019 10:34:51 AM

ATHOL – A crowd in excess of 200 people – residents, voters, and observers – packed Liberty Hall at Town Hall Monday night to dispense with a Special Town Meeting warrant consisting of only two articles. One article, which called for amending the town’s zoning bylaws by instituting a 15-month moratorium on the construction of ground-mounted solar arrays, was the main draw for the large crowd.

Once the article calling for the moratorium was moved by Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee Chair Ken Duffy, and seconded, Planning and Community Development Committee Chair David Small took the floor to explain his board’s support for the measure.

“The Planning Board voted 6-0 in favor of this amendment,” Small began. “We’re going to look at all the different bylaws that we have associated with this and really come up with some solid direction about where we want the community to go. What (the amendment) is not, is a referendum on solar in general. This is just to give us a chance to actually look at what we’re dealing with.”

Small said his committee has considered proposals for nine large solar array projects, “half of which were not real bad – people didn’t complain – half of them, people were very upset.” He encouraged residents to attend future meetings and public hearings to provide input in developing a sensible set of bylaws governing solar arrays.

Dennis Killay of the Secret Lake Property Owners Association told voters that in Athol, about 80 percent of the land is zoned Residential C. Currently, development of commercial solar arrays in zone C is ‘by right.’ he said, “By right means if a person has access to a piece of land legitimately, they have the right...to use that land pretty much for anything they want. This means that if one wants to place a solar array on their property, the bare minimum is all they have to meet as far as regulations are concerned. This is the major weakness in our bylaws.”

Killay explained that a recent study of town zoning bylaws related to ground mounted solar arrays conducted by Tufts University found them lacking. He said the study found the regulations to be weak, and they allow developers to do “pretty much as they see fit.”

“Athol is a town with a lot of undeveloped forest land,” he said. “A lot of that land is in areas that are hard to develop and, consequently, has low prices. Now the solar companies can come and get land at bargain prices and they can do whatever they want, with very few regulations.”

Killay argued the moratorium would allow the time necessary to develop better bylaws.

Resident Phillip Dion proposed an amendment that would have reduced the size of proposed arrays covered by the moratorium from 5,000 square feet to 200 square feet.

“I’m basically a land owner’s rights kind of guy,” said Dion. “This moratorium is not really a moratorium on ground mounted solar; at least anything that’s under 5,000 feet.”

He said he believed 200 square feet would be sufficient “for someone wanting to something in their back yard that nobody else could see, and their neighbors don’t have a problem with.”

Town Counsel John Barrett expressed concern that making the moratorium too restrictive could lead it to be overturned by the state Attorney General’s office. He said making such an extreme reduction in size at the last minute might violate statutes requiring voters to receive adequate notice of any proposal to be voted on at town meeting.

“I can’t say that it definitely would be challenged by the Attorney General,” said Barrett, “but I would have to say that the smaller (the restriction) gets, it runs afoul of the ‘four corners’ of the article. You have to give notice to people.”

Dion’s proposed amendment was defeated by an overwhelming margin.

The moratorium itself was ultimately approved on a unanimous vote, 180-2.

Article 2, which asked the town to approve spending $315,000 from the town’s ambulance reserve account for the purchase of a new fire department ambulance was, with no debate, also approved without dissent.

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