Solar amendment disapproved at quick, heated Town Meeting

Oct 24, 2017

A bylaw amendment that would ban ground-mounted solar arrays from within 1,000 feet of Route 105 was voted down 64-41 at Rochester's October 23 Special Town Meeting.

The motion, an amendment to Rochester's zoning bylaws, asked to insert wording that would ban any ground-mounted solar panels within 1,000 feet of a scenic highway. The only scenic highway currently in Rochester is Route 105.

The wording of the amendment caused some concern and confusion. Rochester Planning Board Chairman Arnie Johnson, who was at the meeting, explained that he and Town Counsel Blair Bailey had tried to further amend the wording of the petition to something which would be more agreeable to the Attorney General. Massachusetts' Attorney General has ultimate approval over all motions passed at Town Meeting.

Johnson and Bailey both suspected that the Attorney General would not allow the bylaw to be amended in the end, as a 1,000-foot ban of solar panels would be seen as exclusionary in a strongly pro-solar state.

Unfortunately, Johnson said, Bailey had not agreed with the further amending of the wording, and had proposed his own. There was no time left to hold another Planning Board hearing to change the amendment's wording prior to Town Meeting. "I know we said we'd stand behind an amended wording, but we couldn't get one in time," he explained. "Therefore the Planning Board does not recommend this motion."

Planning Board member Ben Bailey also spoke, though as a private citizen. "As an individual, I'm against this," he said. "The Planning Board makes sure any ground mounted solar is shielded from the road already, so the most you’ll see is a berm and wooden fence. Secondly, land-owner rights. I don’t think we should get into the business of telling people they can or can’t do certain things with their property, because we can all find reason to object to something."

Some residents were displeased with Bailey's words and the Planning Board's stance against the amendment. One resident argued that solar farms were degrading property values and the Planning Board was not doing enough to stop them.

When another resident complained that the Planning Board was selling out Rochester, though, things came to a head.

Johnson was furious. Standing up, he addressed the room at large. "I'm going on record to say that this is highly offensive to the Planning Board," he said angrily. "We work very hard to protect this town. I make a motion to move the question. I want this shut down."

Town Moderator Kirby Gilmore took a vote on whether or not to "move the question," an order that would disallow further commentary on the issue and force a vote.

Unfortunately, several residents were unclear on what they were voting for, assuming they were voting on the main bylaw amendment rather than the motion to move the question. In the end, the voters found out that they had accidentally agreed to to silence themselves.

An angry mutter wound through the crowd. Legally though, Town Counsel Blair Bailey pointed out, no more could be said on the matter of the solar amendment.

When a vote was taken, the amendment was disapproved by voters; 41 voted in favor of amending the wording as submitted, while 64 opposed the amendment.

Requests for extra police funding, due to a contract agreed to at regular Town Meeting in May, and totaling $100,000, were voted through unanimously and without comment. A request for an additional $2,400, to hire a part-time recording secretary for board meetings received the same treatment.