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Voters approve solar arrays, school budget at Town Meeting

Date: 5/15/2014

By Chris Maza

WILBRAHAM – As the Wilbraham Annual Town Meeting on May 12 approached its fourth hour, a small remainder of participants voted to approve a zoning bylaw amendment that outlines the regulations for photovoltaic arrays in town.

The bylaw would continue to allow residents to construct solar arrays, but specifies that projects of more than 10,000 square feet would be classified as “large scale” arrays and therefore must meet certain conditions and be approved for a special permit by the Planning Board.

Resident Llewellyn Merrick, who has been in talks with contractors regarding the possibility of erecting such a development on his land located near the intersection of Main Street and Tinkham Road, strenuously objected to the article, stating that he had been told by a representative of one of the companies with which he was speaking that the bylaw conflicted with state regulations.

“The 10,000 square foot boundary stands in opposition of the state’s definition of a large scale facility. The state defines it as a facility that produces 500 kilowatts or more,” he said, adding that the town’s bylaw would be restrictive and prevent potential development.

Planning Director John Pearsall explained that there are no state regulations regarding the size of solar arrays.

“The state has model zoning within its Green Community program, but it does not have any regulations defining a large scale solar array,” he said. “This bylaw does not mean that arrays larger than 10,000 square feet won’t be allowed; they will have to go through a permitting process.”

Planning Board Vice-Chair Jeffrey Smith said the board decided to draft the bylaw with size in mind as opposed to voltage because size provided a more uniform way of measuring a system.

“There’s no way of predicting the amount of voltage generated. It’s a moving target because the technology is changing daily,” he said. “We also chose square footage because we feel that is more important to the people of the town than the amount of energy generated.”

Resident Michael Dane spoke in opposition of a bylaw allowing solar facilities, calling all photovoltaic projects “losers” that are “subsidized by the taxpayers on one end and subsidized by the rate payers on the other.”

Residents also voted to approve a fiscal year 2015 (FY15) budget of $36.7 million, including a $22.5 million assessment for the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District (HWRSD).

Finance Committee Chair Susan Bunnell said the town was in a strong financial position and through the proposed budget, the town would be able to restore a deputy fire chief position that was eliminated during the economic downturn and partial funding for the Wilbraham Public Access Television director’s salary. Sunday hours at the Wilbraham Public Library would be continued and projects such as a sorely needed public safety radio upgrade and the flood mitigation project on Main Street could be supported.

The HWRSD assessment is a 5 percent increase from FY14 including $1.5 million in debt associated with the new Minnechaug Regional High School. Superintendent M. Martin O’Shea said the increase, among other things, represents the fact that a greater percentage of students in the district are coming from Wilbraham as Hampden’s enrollment continues to decline.

O’Shea also noted that due largely to a lack of support from the state, including a Chapter 70 aid increase of less than 1 percent and regional transportation costs only being reimbursed at 58 percent, the district would be forced to make cuts.

Nine paraprofessionals, including two elementary library paraprofessional positions, 8.4 full time equivalent (FTE) teaching positions and 2.5 FTE counseling positions are slated to be eliminated next school year. He noted that four or five of the teaching positions were the result of declining enrollment and counseling was affected by the ending of the Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant program.

Voters also supported an article that allows the Board of Selectmen to institute a municipal light plant (MLP). William Caurana, chair of the Broadband Committee, explained that in order for an MLP to be approved, the town must vote in favor of it twice and it was supported last year.

“Essentially this empowers the town to create its own municipal broadband network,” he said, adding the MLP would be a 501c entity governed by an elected board made up of no less than three members. “The town stands to incur higher costs [if it failed to approve the article]. This is the only way to break the monopoly of Charter [Communications] and Verizon.”

The only article voted down at the meeting was a proposed bylaw amendment that would add restaurants to the list of allowable uses in the Neighborhood Office zoning district, which is primarily located in the center of town.

Tracey Plantier, associate Planning Board member, said the bylaw amendment was an answer to the Vision Task Force’s finding that residents wanted to see more effort from the town in attracting businesses to the town’s center.

“We’re trying to make things more flexible for businesses in town while also having protection to ensure the kind of business we like is moving into the town center,” she said.

The article was met with a host of objections, ranging from concerns about the flexibility in the bylaw paving the way for a change in the feel and culture of the center to concerns over the amount of parking available in the area.

Dane added that it was his belief that the Vision Task Force’s survey represented a minority opinion within the town, but Plantier objected, stating that approximately 500 people took the survey, making it a statistically viable study.