The citizen’s petition to place restrictions on solar farms along Route 105 and any future scenic highways failed to garner the two-thirds votes a bylaw change requires during the October 23 Rochester Fall Special Town Meeting.
The article was vetted two weeks prior during a Planning Board public hearing on October 10, at which time Planning Board Chairman Arnie Johnson told the resident bringing the article to town meeting, Sara Johnston, that the Attorney General’s Office would likely not approve a 1,000-foot setback.
As written, Article 6 was to add an amendment to the Town’s solar bylaw: “Large-Scale ground mounted solar installations are not permitted within 1,000’ of any commonwealth or town designated scenic road unless existing topographic features of the landscape preclude observation of the solar arrays from the scenic road.”
During that Planning Board meeting, Johnston proposed decreasing it to 500 feet, and then Chairman Johnson surprised everyone by proposing an outright ban on large-scale solar farms on any current or future state- or town-designated scenic highways. Johnston agreed to make the motion at Town Meeting using the language the Planning Board devised for her to use in place of the printed article, and the Planning Board voted unanimously to recommend the amended article, not to propose the 1,000 feet, but to propose the ban.
At that time, Johnson said Town Counsel Blair Bailey gave the nod for Johnson’s suggestion – but during a follow-up with Johnson after Town Meeting adjourned on October 23, Johnson said Bailey changed his opinion days later, which led to the series of events that occurred that night.
At 7:14 pm, the final of the six articles was called for a motion; no one stood to make that motion.
“If you don’t make a motion, we can’t go anywhere,” said Town Moderator Kirby Gilmore. “We can’t talk about it until someone makes a motion.”
Johnston was nowhere to be found, and the voters appeared visually confused.
One resident approached the microphone and read the article as it was written with the 1,000-foot setback, but town counsel said the motion was not fashioned properly.
Another resident took the microphone and made the motion for the 1,000-foot setback and the motion was seconded by a number of voters seated.
Johnson told the voters that the Planning Board could not recommend the article, saying the board did recommend a prior amendment, but could not recommend this version.
Then Planning Board member Ben Bailey said that although he voted as a Planning Board member to recommend the amended article, as an individual he opposes it.
“First, it’s the hypocrisy,” said Bailey. “The Planning Board does a very good job making sure that solar farms are shielded,” whether by berms, fences, or both, he said. “It’s just not that intrusive.”
Bailey then publically criticized Sara Johnston for a “huge white plastic barn” on her property, saying he did not think a white plastic barn particularly fit in with the character of the town, either.
It was then that Johnston entered the RMS cafeteria – late.
“Now she’s gonna tell people they can’t have a solar farm?” continued Bailey. “Do you really want to start telling land owners what they can and can’t do with their properties?”
Johnston stood in the rear of the room listening.
“Because we can all find reason to object to something,” said Bailey.
Resident John Sheehan rebutted, saying, “You do not have the right to do whatever you please on your own property in this town, particularly when you consider other landowners in this town whose property values could be significantly [affected],” said Sheehan. “I would never buy a house across from a 13-acre solar farm. That’s just me.”
Sheehan tried to get a show of hands on who would buy a house in front of a solar farm from the voters, but was shut down by the moderator for being out of order.
Sheehan then criticized the Planning Board, accusing the board of being complacent, and perhaps complicit, in solar farm growth in town.
“They seem to be very willing to sell out the town to outside interests,” said Sheehan, until Johnson stood up and angrily interrupted him.
Going on the record, Johnson shot back, “That is highly offensive to the entire Planning Board who work very hard for many hours for no pay!” said Johnson, before moving the question to “shut this down.”
The motion to move the question was made, seconded, and followed by a unanimous ‘aye.’
Resident Kenneth Cutler tried to speak further at the microphone but was stopped by the moderator. Cutler claimed he did not know what his ‘yes’ vote would entail and demanded to continue discussing the article. He was not allowed.
“You’re ignoring a man’s comments from the floor,” Cutler said.
Town counsel explained Robert’s Rules of Order and Cutler sat down.
As for the final vote on the article, it was 41 in favor of adoption, 64 opposed. The required two-thirds vote failed. All three selectmen voted it down, as did the town administrator and three of the four Finance Committee members on the stage.
Articles approved were:
– Article 1 to accept the provisions of MGL Chapter 59, Section 57A, which allows the collector to send one tax bill for payment and interest on real and personal property tax bills of $100 or less. The Town had already accepted the amount of $50 or less.
– Article 2 for $30,000 to fund the negotiated police union contract agreement for fiscal year 2017.
– Article 3 for $60,000 to supplement appropriation previously adopted during the 2017 Annual Town Meeting for the FY2017 police budget to fund the negotiated police union contract agreement.
– Article 4 for $10,000 to supplement the FY2017 police budget to address staffing.
– Article 5 for the sum of $2,400 to supplement the FY2017 Planning Board budget for a part-time recording secretary.
Rochester Fall Special Town Meeting
By Jean Perry