Leverett OKs new solar bylaw, $5.9 million budget

  • The model of a proposed solar installation created by Barry Oberpriller that he displayed at the Leverett Town Meeting on Saturday. Voters approved a new solar bylaw. SAMANTHA WOOD

  • Barry and Cheri Oberpriller stand with a model of their proposed solar installation at the Leverett Town Meeting on Saturday. A new solar bylaw was approved. SAMANTHA WOOD

Staff Writer
Monday, May 09, 2016

LEVERETT — Voters approved a new solar bylaw, a one-year change in the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District funding formula and a nearly $5.9 million budget at annual Town Meeting last Saturday

The town budget of $5,867,722 for the fiscal year beginning July 1 represents a 4.6 percent increase over this year’s $5,608,983 spending plan. A total of $3,888,029 in next year’s budget is for education.

The seven-hour meeting convened soon after 9 a.m. and dealt with 35 articles.

Leverett became the first of the four towns in the school district to approve the agreement to change the school funding formula so that 10 percent of the operating budget assessment shall be allocated to each town based on proportionate shares of taxable property values.

The other 90 percent will be allocated to the member towns in accordance with the per-pupil method found in the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District agreement. The per-pupil method is also referred to as the five-year rolling average, and the 90 percent of this one-year formula is based on that average.

Each of the member towns must approve the new one-year formula for the school budget to take effect. Amherst approved a similar measure at its first night of Town Meeting on Monday. Shutesbury will take up the issue at its Town Meeting on May 7.

This school funding compromise is the latest step in a conflict about how the budget is shared among the district’s towns. The town of Shutesbury has argued that it is considerably less wealthy than the other three towns in the district — Leverett, Pelham and Amherst — and has protested the per-pupil formula, saying that the actual property values of the town should be a greater factor in deciding the share the town pays to send its students to the middle and high schools.

Leverett Town Meeting also voted to create an exploratory committee to consider alternatives to the regionalization agreement when it comes to educating the town’s children.

Solar bylaw

One of the most contentious issues at Town Meeting this year was the proposed solar bylaw presented by Planning Board member Tom Ewing.

The bylaw moved from using kilowatt-based system to designate the size of solar arrays to one based on the square feet of solar panels. The reason, Ewing said, is that as technology advances, the amount of power that solar panels can generate changes and so kilowatts do not offer a consistent size measurement for solar installations.

Included in the new designations is one for medium solar power installations, of between 1,750 and 40,000-square feet, and setting a 100-foot setback for medium and large installations. The new bylaw does not affect rooftop arrays of homeowners and allows up to 1,750-square-foot, ground-mounted systems.

Ewing said the Planning Board decided to include the 100-foot restrictions, with modifications to be allowed by site plan review and special permit processes, because larger installations would more likely impact neighbors and therefore the community should have a chance to weigh in on those projects.

There would be no minimum-size parcel for building a solar installation under the new bylaw, Ewing said. One could use land for solar power generation that is not otherwise a legal building lot.

There was much debate about the 100-foot setback, however, with two amendments proposed to reduce the setbacks to coincide with the current zoning regulations. Both amendments failed.

Barry and Cheri Oberpriller brought a model of the solar installation they had proposed for their property which was turned down by the Planning Board in 2015. Referring to the proposed bylaw, Barry Oberpriller said the 100-foot setback would make it impossible to install this solar array and that his property was one of the few places in Leverett it was possible to create an installation of this size due to the limited availability of three-phase power lines.

Three-phase grid infrastructure is required for larger installations and it was generally agreed that there are only a few places in town where it is available. In the end, both Oberprillers voted for the new bylaw, which was approved 99-5, with two abstentions.

“Of course I voted for it,” Barry Oberpriller said. “It is better than the old one.”

Montague battles pipeline

Article 21 asked Leverett to contribute $5,000 to the Town of Montague to help pay the cost of its continuing process as intervenor in the Department of Public Utilities proceedings regarding the Berkshire Gas Co. contract with the pipeline. Although the pipeline process has been suspended, there are hearings pending in the DPU process.

Several voters weighed in on the issue of sending tax money to another town.

“I’m against this article,” said Donald Robinson of Jacksonville Road. “The pipeline has been suspended. I don’t think this is an appropriate use of our tax money.”

Several speakers likened the idea of sending Montague money to fight the pipeline to mutual aid agreements for emergency services.

The article passed, but not unanimously.

Campaign finance

An article calling for the repeal of the Citizens United 2010 Supreme Court decision, requiring that financial contributions to campaigns be transparent and instructing legislators to enact tough campaign finance reform passed unanimously.

Transfer station

Articles 32 through 35 addressed concerns about the transfer station, its employment policies and its relationship with the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District, specifically whether money was being spent unnecessarily.

These articles were all brought to Town Meeting by Richard Drury, who used to run the transfer station, which is also a beloved informal meeting place in town. There was much contention over these articles, with several town officials calling them attempts at micromanaging contracts within departments.

During the discussion, Drury became incensed and interrupted proceedings, once refusing to explain an article, saying “nobody’s listening.”

Failing were Article 32, a petition for a change in hiring practice for the transfer station if a suitable candidate cannot be found within two weeks; Article 33, a petition to terminate the contract with the Franklin County Solid Waste District; and Article 35, a petition to keep the transfer station open both weekend days.

Drury rescinded Article 34, which was a petition to keep the transfer station open unless closed by an environmental regulatory agency or a majority vote at Town Meeting.

Samantha Wood can be reached at swood@gazettenet.com.