Report On The Town Council Meeting Of November 22,2021
This meeting took place over Zoom and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here.
All councilors were present
Staff: Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Clerk of the Council Athena O’Keeffe
- Council reaffirms referral of the temporary moratorium on large-scale solar installations to CRC and GOL
- Co-chair Jamileh Jemison resigns from reparations committee
- Funds allocated from free cash to reparations stabilization fund, roads and sidewalks, and the dog park
- Council begins discussion of Town Manager evaluation and goals
Temporary Moratorium On Large-Scale Ground Mounted Solar Projects Referred To CRC Again
At the Town Council Meeting on November 8, the council voted to refer the proposed bylaw on a temporary moratorium on ground mounted solar installations larger than 250 kW to the Community Resources Committee (CRC) and the Governance, Organization, and Legislation Committee (GOL) by a vote of 7-6. The temporary moratorium was proposed by Council President Lynn Griesemer and fellow District 2 councilor Pat DeAngelis. The wording of the proposed bylaw can be read here.
After that meeting, the council was made aware of a provision under Massachusetts General Law (MGL chapter 40A, section 3) which prevents municipalities from prohibiting solar installations unless they present a threat to public health or safety or conflict with local zoning. Subsequently, the council received a legal opinion from town attorneys KP Law stating that, in their opinion, the moratorium was legal because it was temporary for a defined period of time—that is, until Amherst passes a solar siting bylaw, but not to exceed 18 months.
The town also received a notice of potential litigation from Northampton attorney Michael Pill if it did pass the moratorium. Pill cited the Massachusetts statute and several rulings as justification for his argument. Pill’s response can be read here.
Because these legal developments were submitted shortly before the November 15 council meeting, councilor Andy Steinberg (at large) wanted to reconsider the referral of the moratorium and to delay this reconsideration until November 22 in order for the council to have a chance to examine the arguments.
The Council voted again to refer the temporary solar moratorium to CRC and GOL. The vote was 9-4, with Bahl-Milne and Evan Ross (District 4) changing their November 8 votes from no to yes. Cathy Schoen and Sarah Swartz (District 1) and Dorothy Pam (District 3), and Darcy DuMont (District 5) also joined sponsors Griesemer and DeAngelis in voting for the referral.
Discussion And Next Steps
The temporary moratorium will also need to be reviewed by the Planning Board and receive a two-thirds vote of the council to go into effect. A public hearing with the CRC has been tentatively set for January 10, but a vote to reconsider the referral at this meeting could have pushed push back the 65-day deadline for a hearing.
In support of her petition, DeAngelis pointed out that a temporary moratorium would give Amherst time to develop a solar siting bylaw. Building Commissioner Rob Morra estimated that development and passage of the bylaw would take about 18 months. Most surrounding towns do have such bylaws. DeAngelis stressed that Amherst needs a bylaw to fit its own particular circumstances and to protect its water and natural resources. Griesemer said that town staff wanted time to develop a bylaw that would not need a lot of rewriting.
Alisa Brewer (at large) argued that she was upset that two councilors spent a considerable amount of staff time on something the council had not identified as a priority. She said Amherst needs a bylaw, not a moratorium. This debate and referral will only cause more staff and committee time to be spent on debating the moratorium instead of creating the bylaw. Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) shared this view asserting that it was better to use forests for solar installations than to use farmland.
Mandy Jo Hanneke (at large) was skeptical of the town attorney’s opinion and thought the town may be risking a lawsuit with the temporary moratorium. George Ryan (District 3) wondered why the sponsors thought the Conservation Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals, that currently review solar projects, are not “up to the task”. But Town Manager Paul Bockelman said that the Conservation Commission’s responsibilities are limited to evaluating the effects of a project on wetlands.
Jemison Resigns From African Heritage Reparations Assembly (AHRA)
As liaison to the AHRA, Brewer announced that co-chair of the assembly, Jamileh Jemison has resigned from the committee. Brewer did not offer a reason for the resignation, and the Indy was unable to gather any more information by press time.
Public Forum on Financial Appropriations
Finance Director Sean Mangano briefly reviewed the Finance Department and Finance Committee’s recommendations for use of excess free cash in the coming year. The first presentation to the council was at the November 15. He said the town usually transfers the amount of free cash (to excess) above five percent of the budget, but because there was an unusually large amount of free cash this year, the amount suggested for transfer this year is roughly half of the fund.
The proposal is to transfer $210,000 to the African Heritage Reparations Assembly as a stabilization fund, $450,000 to fund future healthcare obligations to employees, $1.2 million for road and sidewalk repair, and $75,000 to complete the dog park due to the need to modify the original plans for the dog park in order to protect the cap on the old landfill. The Finance Committee recommended spending more on sidewalks than roads and separated out the dog park funding from the road and sidewalk repair.
Although this was a public forum, only Jim Pistrang, chair of the dog park committee spoke. He noted that the dog park has been planned for several years and was funded largely through grants and donations. The $75,000 was an unanticipated expense necessary to complete the project.
DuMont said that if it were not for the dog park, the town would not need to spend the $75,000 to protect the landfill. She also pointed out that more staff time was devoted to modifying the project. She questioned the town’s priorities, as did Bahl-Milne and Pam. Pam said this should be an opportunity for more fundraising, that when projects run over their allotted funds, they should have to raise the additional money, just as the library will have to do if its costs run over.
The vote was 12-1 to accept the transfer of free cash as recommended. DuMont voted no.
Town Manager Evaluation
Most of this meeting was devoted to beginning the evaluation of the Town Manager. Each councilor had previously submitted written comments. These can be read in the meeting packet. Griesemer began a summary of those comments and councilors weighed in on her summary. The discussion will continue at future meetings.
Town Manager Goals
GOL chair Ryan said the committee modified the goals set for the Town Manager last year by changing dates and removing those goals already met. Brewer said the goal setting keeps getting pushed back, and at this late date, she said “why bother. We can let the new council deal with it.” Ryan said that there are some multi-year goals, such as those for climate action, which need to be specified.
Hanneke wanted stronger statements on making progress on the new fire station and the Department of Public Works and also on strengthening the strategic partnership with UMass and the colleges. The recommendations offered by the councilors will be taken back to GOL and the revised goals presented at a later meeting.
Council Appoints Members To Budget Coordinating Group
The Budget Coordinating Group (BCG), consisting of representatives from the council, the library trustees, and the school committee, has not met in the past two years. Current council representatives are Ryan and Schoen. Ryan was not re-elected to the council, and Schoen withdrew her name. Griesemer, Steinberg, and Hanneke were selected for the coming year, although Bockelman said he has not yet received any explicit request from for the BCG to meet.
The meeting adjourned at 10: 36 p.m.