Solar moratorium extension overwhelmingly approved at Athol town meeting

  • Resident and business owner Ron Gatautis lobbies for defeat of an extension of Athol’s solar construction moratorium during Monday’s Annual Town Meeting. Staff Photo/Greg Vine

  • Voters at Monday’s Annual Town Meeting raise their hands in favor of a six-month extension of Athol’s solar array moratorium. Staff Photo/Greg Vine

  • Athol Property owner Bill Hogan implores voters at Monday's Annual Town Meeting to approve a six-month extension of the town's moratorium on solar array development. Staff Photo/Greg Vine

  • Social distancing was enforced at Athol's Annual Town Meeting Monday night. Sept. 14, 2020. Staff Photo/Greg Vine

  • Town Manager Shaun Suhoski, left, and Selectboard Chair Rebecca Bialecki listen as Town Moderator Lawrence McLaughlin gets Monday’s Annual Town Meeting underway. Staff Photo/Greg Vine

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 9/16/2020 7:04:53 PM
Modified: 9/16/2020 7:04:45 PM

ATHOL — It took voters about 45 minutes Monday night to zip through the first 30 articles on Athol’s annual town meeting warrant, and another 20 minutes or so to address the final issue to be resolved.

Article 31 called for a six-month extension of the town’s existing moratorium on the construction of large ground-mounted solar arrays. It had first been proposed that the building ban be extended for a full year, but supporters apparently thought the moratorium stood a better chance of passage if it was trimmed back.

Supporters of the extension feared a resurgence of COVID-19 could lead to postponement of the October fall town meeting, where competing bylaws governing the construction of solar arrays in the town’s RC residential zone will be considered by voters. The moratorium passed in July of last year is due to expire on October 31 and without a vote next month, they argued, the town would be left wide open to solar development.

The main argument in favor of the article was presented by Bill Hogan who, although not a registered voter in Athol, owns a home on the shores of Secret Lake. Hogan was the main author of the extension.

“First of all,” he said, “I consider this an insurance policy for the town. If the in fact the fall town meeting is not able to be held because of the virus, or any other cause, then the moratorium would continue until April of 2021.

“The six-month extension causes no harm to any landowner or developer that may be considering a solar installation. That’s because National Grid, the owner of the electrical infrastructure that their systems would have to into, has limitations in this area. Town officials realize it will be about four years before any physical connection to the grid can be made.”

Hogan also said the extension would be consistent with results of a citizen survey conducted last year, which indicated support for stricter regulation of solar developments in Athol. It would also, he said, reflect the sentiment of the voters who approved the original moratorium by a margin of 180-2 at last July’s special town meeting.

Board of Planning and Community Development Chair David Small told attendees that his panel had recommended passage of the extension. Four members voted in favor, with three others abstaining.

“A big change since our meeting,” he said, “is that the original proposal was for a full year extension of the moratorium, and they’ve reduced it now to six months, which is a little bit more palatable.”

Speaking in opposition to the article was Athol resident and businessman Ron Gatautis.

“If there’s truly a four-year hold as far as projects with National Grid,” he began, “why do we need this extension?

“There are landowners who are going to be hurt by not being able to put in solar, and I’m really worried about climate change, global warming that’s driven by human emissions. We have wildfires on the west coast, climate change threatening food production. Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primary as a result of human activity.

“Fortunately, climate change is solvable. We have the technology and the science to cut emissions. Carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases are the main drivers of global warming. Solar panels offset about eight times more carbon per year than forest land. To avoid the worst consequences of climate change we need to reach net-zero carbon emissions. To reach net-zero we need to change the way we produce electricity.”

As a result, he said, the development of solar energy should be encouraged, not curtailed.

Several more voters on both sides of the issue addressed the meeting before the extension was ultimately approved by a vote of 84-9.

In other action, voters approved without debate the levying of $15.4 million in property taxes, which will be applied to an overall FY21 municipal budget of just over $21 million.

There also was no debate regarding a Proposition 2 ½ debt exclusion in the amount of $825,000 to cover the cost of repairs to the Town Hall clock tower and roof. The measure, which required the approval of two-thirds of the voters in attendance, passed by a margin of 81-5. While the debt exclusion was approved at a June special election, state law also requires approval at town meeting.

In all, 95 registered voters attended Monday’s meeting.

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