Extension of solar moratorium sought

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 8/7/2020 5:18:29 PM
Modified: 8/7/2020 5:18:18 PM

ATHOL — One of the originators of a ground-mounted solar array moratorium went before the Selectboard at its meeting Tuesday to request that the ban on the construction of solar farms be extended for another year. The year-long moratorium, enacted at a Special Town Meeting last year, is set to expire in October.

Since it was enacted, Athol’s Board of Planning and Community Development (BPCD) has been working with an array of community members to cobble together zoning regulations that would limit the construction of large solar arrays in the town’s Residential C zone. Prior to enactment of the moratorium, the establishment of such facilities in the RC zone was allowed “by right.” The bylaw under consideration would require a special permit before construction could proceed.

“Our concern,” said Lori Kay, “is that the October (fall) Town Meeting where bylaws, including the solar bylaw, could be delayed for a month or more, depending on what the situation is.”

Kay said concerns were raised because the Annual Town Meeting, originally scheduled to take place in June, had been moved to September due to scheduling and budgetary issues arising from the coronavirus pandemic.

Kay said signatures had been collected on a petition suggesting “that we extend the commercial solar moratorium for another year, and we want to understand what we can do to make that happen.”

“We certainly are planning on having an October fall Town Meeting,” said board Chair Rebecca Bialecki, “and we’ve been notified by our Board of Health agent that we will be more likely to hold a meeting in October rather than delay it because of winter, when we’ll be dealing not only with the pandemic but also the flu season.”

“That’s why we were hoping to get a year extension on the moratorium, to cover all possibilities,” Kay responded.

Town Counsel John Barrett explained that any extension would need state approval.

“The last moratorium bylaw was approved by the Attorney General with the expectation that we would hold a meeting before the end of October — Oct. 31 of 2020.

“I can’t say that it is impossible that the Attorney General would consider approval of a further bylaw (extending the moratorium) because of COVID. I think if we were trying to ask for more time — except for the COVID emergency — we probably would be rejected. But it’s possible we could (get the extension), I think.”

“The moratorium expires at the end of October,” said Kay, “regardless of when the Town Meeting is held.”

“The expectation is that the normal Special Town Meeting for the fall will be held on the third Monday, which I think is Oct. 19,” Barrett responded, “and I think the town’s expectation is that we will still hold it. Whether or not the town feels that because of COVID that there’s a chance we would not hold that meeting to deal with the solar bylaw is really up to the town.

“All I can say is that we can ask the Attorney General to approve the extension — if the town approves it. I don’t know whether the COVID-19 emergency would give us justification for a further extension.”

Barrett said additional justification for extending the moratorium might hinge on whether the BPCD’s deliberations on the proposed bylaw have been held up due to the pandemic.

Board member Lee Chauvette asked later, during a discussion regarding the Annual Town Meeting, whether the citizens petition seeking the extension could be added to the warrant for that meeting, which is scheduled for Sept. 12.

“If we were to do that for the September meeting,” said Bialecki, “it would require us to open the warrant and add it as an item; otherwise, it can go on the October meeting.”

Chauvette then asked that the issue be added to the agenda for consideration at the board’s next meeting on Aug. 18.

“If we’re going to take a chance and gamble, waiting until the October meeting to address something that expires in October,” said Chauvette, “that’s a little dangerous. I think we should get it onto the (warrant for the) September meeting.”

Town Clerk Nancy Burnham confirmed the petition seeking the extension could be taken up at the board’s next meeting, which falls within the time frame to allow it to be added to the Sept. 12 annual town meeting warrant — if the board votes to do so.

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