“I want you to know that I feel really bad about being in Florida for the last snowstorm,” Rochester Zoning Board Chairman Richard Cutler said as he came in from an unseasonably chilly evening. He spoke to a full house – every bench was full, and chairs were drawn up in the back.
The board quickly went through nominating positions before moving on to hearings. Richard Cutler, whose five-year term ends this year, was swiftly nominated to return as the chairman. “What, nobody else wants to do it?” he joked.
“I think I hear crickets,” board member Don Spirlet said from Cutler’s left.
The first hearing of two for the night caused the most controversy.
Meadowatt, LLC sought a special permit for property at 188-190 Marion Road that would enable the lot to be zoned as both residential and commercial.
Meadowatt representative Greg Bersin explained that he wanted to add a secondary commercial use to the residential lot, which already boasts a small house, in order to add a solar array to the property.
“This is by far the smallest of all proposed solar arrays in Rochester. We thought leaving the little house was the best idea for refurbishment,” said Bersin. “We could knock down the house and put in a bigger solar array, but we thought that that was in nobody’s best interest.”
It turned out that the reason for the surprisingly crowded benches was the attendance of several abutters of the Meadowatt property, all fiercely opposed to the proposed solar array.
George Buler of 152 Marion Road said, “When I first moved here, this was a rural town. Time goes by, but we’re losing the rural-ness. I don’t like it. If it was in the middle of the woods and I didn’t have to see it all the time … different story.”
“Oh, you don’t like the Fort Knox look they’re going for?” asked Cutler sarcastically.
Morgan Cecil of 169 Marion Road agreed with Buler, adding, “If you allow this, we’re going to start seeing businesses next to houses everywhere.”
Cutler sighed as he considered his reply. “The only reason they’re here before us is because they want a special permit to zone this property differently. We can disapprove having two entities on one property, but that means they can tear the house down, build an even bigger solar array, and they won’t need to consult the Zoning Board at all.”
Board member Kirby Gilmore expressed frustration with state law regarding solar arrays, which allows them to bypass many town bylaws and zoning restrictions. “I don’t know what the good people of Beacon Hill had in mind when they said we couldn’t have bylaws on solar arrays.”
“We’re trumped by the state, Kirby,” Cutler agreed.
“If we argue that there’s no detriment to the public good, and everyone here opposes that, we’re going against the town,” Spirlet reasoned.
The board voted to deny the special permit request, leaving Meadowatt to either sell the property as a residential property, or develop it as a larger solar array in compliance with the restrictions the Rochester Planning Board will set.
“And they will have a lot of restrictions,” Cutler said.
In other matters, a petition came from DRS Development, LLC co-owner Kerri Sousa, for property at 7 Marion Road.
Sousa petitioned for a special permit modification to remove the 55+ age restriction that was a stipulation in the original special permit granted to the property.
“I’m having an incredibly difficult time renting to people who are 55 and over,” she stated. “They generally are unable to afford the rent.”
“If we add in a stipulation of owner occupancy,” said Cutler, “the owner would need to be a person, not just an entity … because the owner of the property right now is DRS Development, and that’s an entity.”
Vince Craig, who was in attendance in the meeting to represent Sousa, clarified. “Anyone with interest in the entity which owns the property can legally be deemed an owner.”
A discussion ensued.
“Well, we don’t want someone with just one-percent ownership occupying the property, and we need to be in harmony with the intent,” Cutler said.
“Yes, we don’t really want four apartments with five children each, either,” said Spirlet. “That’s not what the town intended!”
“Well, I’m leaning towards allowing a four-unit rental with owner occupancy, but you’ll need to help us,” Cutler said. “Why don’t we take some time to clarify owner occupancy?”
With that, the petition was continued until the next meeting when stipulations could be clarified.
When the hearings were over, there was new business to bring to the board. The three parties who remained on the benches had all come to file complaints against Wellspring Farm at 42 Hiller Road.
Cathy Mendoza complained that the address, while zoned as agricultural/residential, is actually being used as a commercial property. She and fellow neighbor Ed Amaral also complained that the center no longer catered to the “small handful of students” which it advertised, and now had cars entering and exiting the property at all times, including children with diagnosed anger management issues and violent tendencies who Mendoza and Amaral say frequently shouted obscenities.
“Wellspring Farm is a 501(c)(3), a nonprofit business. Like solar arrays, 501(c)(3)s are exempt from many town bylaws as allowed by the state,” Cutler said. “But this isn’t an appeal against a decision made by the ZBA. You can only appeal a decision made by us or the Zoning Enforcement Officer.”
Cutler said Mendoza and Amaral could request that Building Commissioner Jim Buckles come out to inspect the property and decide whether it is truly being used as a commercial property or not.
“If you don’t like what he says, you can appeal that decision,” said Cutler. “But you need to have something specific for us to consider.”
“I’ve repeatedly contacted Jim Buckles,” Mendoza replied, “and he’s never gotten back to me. Not once. I can’t even get him to respond to me, never mind actually come out and inspect the property.”
“Well then you can appeal his neglect,” Cutler said, “because that is something specific. There’s a process we need to follow. Have you gone to the town counsel, the selectmen?”
Frustration was evident in the room.
“I’ve been trying to follow the process for three and a half years. The selectmen told me this was a zoning board issue. It seems like there’s very little regard for us and what we’re going through,” Mendoza said as Ed Amaral nodded beside her.
The next Rochester Zoning Board of Appeals meeting will take place at the Rochester Town Hall on Thursday, April 28 at 7:00 pm.
By Andrea Ray