Athol approves major money articles, zoning bylaw changes

  • HAND COUNT — Voters raised their hands to be counted during one of several two-thirds votes taken at the Athol Special Town Meeting Monday night. ATHOL DAILY NEWS/Deborrah Porter —ATHOL DAILY NEWS/Deborrah Porter

  • EXPLAINS REQUEST — Darcy Fernandes, superintendent of the Athol-Royalston Regional School District, answers a question from the audience during the Athol Special Town Meeting Monday night in Memorial Hall. On the stage are Moderator Larry McLaughlin, and Town Clerk Nancy Burnham. ATHOL DAILY NEWS/Deborrah Porter —ATHOL DAILY NEWS/Deborrah Porter

Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 07, 2018

ATHOL — Major money articles and zoning bylaw changes were approved with little discussion Monday, with just 161 of the Athol’s 6,798 registered voters attending the special town meeting.

Article 4 generated the most conversation. It requested $3,495,000 for three projects, and needed 91 votes to achieve a required two-thirds majority. The article — adopted 134-6 — calls for $2,640,000 for the design, engineering and repairs to the Exchange Street Bridge, $575,000 to replace the roof of the department of public works’ barn, and $280,000 to pay for the “constructing and reconstructing” of the Pleasant Street sidewalk from Main Street to the school campus access.

Donna Barrett asked why the three items were together in one vote. Ben Feldman, vice chairman of the Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee, said it’s not unusual to put a bunch of small items together.

“It’s expensive to borrow. We don’t have the cash. Spread over a period of time it costs less money,” he said.

The impact of Article 4 on the tax rate is estimated to be about 69 cents per $1,000 valuation. The average single-family home will see a $101.64 increase in the Fiscal Year 2018 tax bill.

DPW Superintendent Doug Walsh said the bulk of the money is needed for the bridge, because it is beyond its useful life. He said repairs to the DPW roof will save the town’s investment and the sidewalk, which is in disrepair, finishes the connection to the existing right of way.

“We are presenting a comprehensive plan to protect the town’s infrastructure,” said Walsh.

He said concrete will be used from Main Street to Edward Street and asphalt will be used the rest of the way. The sidewalk will remain on the existing side up to Barrett Avenue or Victoria Avenue, then cross to the school side because of poles in the way.

School Repairs Project

Another large ticket request was the borrowing of $10,016,786 to replace the roof, boiler, windows and doors at Athol High School, which passed by the required two-thirds vote, 140-3. Ninety-six votes were needed.

Barbara Savoy said the school is 60 years old. She noted the article stated the “repair project would materially extend the useful life of the school and preserve an asset supporting the required educational program.” She asked, “How many more years?”

Darcy Fernandes, superintendent of the Athol-Royalston Regional School District, replied that the life of the school would be extended by 20 or more years. The Massachusetts School Building Authority has approved a grant to the town in the amount of $7,614,398 (79.58 percent reimbursement of the project’s cost). Athol is responsible for $2,270,257 and Royalston will pay $132,131.

The estimated impact on the FY18 tax rate is 29 cents per $1,000 valuation ($42.72 on the average single-family home tax bill), assuming a 20-year borrowing at 4.5 percent.

Combined Borrowing Impact

The combined total of all borrowing projects is $5,765,257, with an impact of 98 cents per $1,000 valuation, increasing the average FY18 tax bill by $144.35.

It was explained that there is a tax rate reduction due to pay-off of library debt of $1.06 per $1,000 valuation, which would impact the average tax bill by a negative $156.14.

So, the net year one estimated reduction in the FY18 tax rate would be .08 cents per $1,000 valuation and average FY18 tax bill would see a reduction of $11.78.

Hourly Employees

Article 6 requested an amendment to the pay structure for employees paid hourly. Steve Kenneway referred to the warrant that indicated the grade and pay step of each of the three positions. He said he was in favor of the article only if there was no loss in pay. Town Manager Shaun Suhoski confirmed this.

For the custodian the existing minimum ($7.14 per hour) and maximum ($12.24 per hour) will increase to Grade 3, Step 7, (as required by the collective bargaining agreement with the Service Employees International Union) with an $11 minimum and a $15.27 maximum.

The part-time library technicians’ existing pay of $10.20 minimum, and $14.11 maximum will increase to $11 and $15.27, respectively.

The library pages existing pay of $6.89 minimum, and $7.14 maximum, will increase to $11 and $12.79, respectively. The request passed by a majority vote. These rates will change according to any future collective bargaining negotiated by the union.

Land Request

By majority vote and no discussion, the town opted to dispose of by sale or lease a portion or entirety of the land and improvements known as the former Pleasant Street School.

Voters also approved the lease of a portion of the former municipal landfill site at 1010 West Royalston Road for any lawful purpose for a term of up to 30 years, and authorized the selectmen to dispose of by sale, lease or gift, the so-called Bates Power Reservoir Dam and property located in Phillipston.

Marijuana Related Articles

The town voted to impose a 3 percent sales tax on the sale of recreational marijuana originating within the town by a vendor from sale of recreational marijuana, marijuana products, marijuana edibles and ancillary products.

“Why only 3 percent?” Danna Boughton asked. “Cigarettes and alcohol are taxed higher.”

Suholski explained the town is accepting the state bylaw and 3 percent is the maximum allowed.

The town approved by a two-thirds vote of 128-4 to create a new titled “Section 1.7 Severability” — which, in the event any provision of the zoning bylaw is determined to be invalid for any reason, the remaining provisions will remain in full effect.

Voters approved 138-2 in a two-thirds vote amending the Athol Zoning Bylaws Article III by adding a new stand-alone section (“3.29, Licensed Marijuana Establishments”). The section outlines purpose and intent, standards and conditions, security requirements, special permit and site plan approval application and operational requirements. It sets the number of retail establishments allowed, defines special permit procedures and permit criteria and adds a list of definitions related to recreational marijuana establishments.

David Small of the Board of Planning and Community Development said, “A lot of people worked on this and the rules are slow to come about. July 1 the first permits will be issued. This article was so we could come out ahead — establish the places, hours of operation and distances.”

Small noted the Board of Health, Police Department and many other entities were involved in the local meetings, hearings and meetings in Boston and Worcester.

“We came up with a common sense bylaw,” said Small.

While Town Moderator Larry McLaughlin was waiting for an amendment to be hand-written to include the definitions in the motion, he conducted a casual poll of the audience. He said the Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox were all playing and asked which team the voters would be watching if they were home. His final question was about how many would be flipping from one channel to another, like he would be, drawing chuckles from the crowd.

The town approved by a vote of 127-5 amendment to “Section” to establish a required 500-foot distance from a facility that dispenses marijuana to a structure used as a preschool with outdoor play areas that is licensed with the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, or a private or public school providing education in kindergarten through 12th grade; and 250 feet from town-owned parks, playgrounds and recreational areas.

Board of Planning and Development member Aimee Hanson said the original section was too restrictive, and that, “We couldn’t spot zone for retail.”

The final article voted was to add a “Section 3.29 Temporary Moratorium on Licensed Marijuana Establishments.” It passed by a two-thirds vote 112-10. Eighty-three voted were needed.

Small said the article is invalid because if the state Attorney General throws out any part of Article 13 (Section 3.29 Licensed Marijuana Establishments), it is a safeguard.

No motion or action was taken on the final article printed on the warrant that would have amended Chapter VII, Section 13 of the general bylaws under “Retail Marijuana Establishments” — to restrict the number of licenses issued to 20 percent of the number of licenses issued for the retail sale of alcoholic beverages, not to be consumed on the premises where sold.

Moments of silence

Following the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to being the Special Town Meeting Monday night in Memorial Hall, moderator Larry McLaughlin led moments of silence for the following residents:

Charles J. “Chuck” Winn, a member of several boards and committees in town including: Athol Housing Authority, Contributory Retirement Board, Program for the Performing Arts and the Industrial Park Committee.

Norman F. Harrow, a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals from 2002-2010.

Glenn R. Frenette, a member of the Traffic Safety Committee from 2004-2010 and the Memorial Building Committee from 2005-2010.

Michael J. Verock, who served the Commonwealth for 20 years, retiring as a Sergeant for the Massachusetts State Police. He served as a Constable for the Town of Athol from 1996-2009.

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