Council Approves Creation of Solar Bylaw Working Group

Solar farm near Austin, Texas. Photo: RoschetzkyistockPhoto.. Istock

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, March 7, 20 22

This meeting was held in hybrid form with some members attending in person and others participating remotely. The public had access via Zoom. The meeting was recorded and can be viewed here

Present
Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Ellisha Walker, Andy Steinberg, and Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large), Cathy Schoen and Michele Miller (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Dorothy Pam and Jennifer Taub (District 3), Pam Rooney and Anika Lopes (District 4), and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5). Absent: Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5)

Staff: Paul Bockelman, Town Manager and Athena O’Keeffe, Clerk of the Council

Griesemer, Devlin Gauthier, Rooney, Hanneke, Miller, Bockelman and O’Keeffe were present in Town Hall. The others participated remotely.

Highlights

  • Town Manager announces plan for solar bylaw working group
  • Energy and Climate Action Committee presents its annual report
  • African Heritage Reparations Assembly discusses plan to enable disbursement of funds for reparations, and committee members give personal testimony on life as a Black person in Amherst
  • Earl Miller appointed as Director of Community Responders for Equity, Safety, and Service (CRESS) program
  • Student partying results in arrests and ambulance runs on Saturday, March 5
  • Tree Warden says the Merry Maple must be cut down.
  • Amherst Regional High School girls’ swim team wins its first state title.

Announcements:
President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) announced that the council plans to have a resolution in support of Ukraine introduced at the next meeting. She added that the Town Manager has secured a Ukrainian flag to fly at Town Hall.

There are several key meetings for the elementary school project this week. The school committee will vote on the educational program at its March 8 meeting. There will also be a community forum (Link) on March 9 at 6:30 p.m., and the Elementary School Building Committee will meet on March 11 at 8:30 a.m. to vote to send the preliminary plans for both the Wildwood and Fort River sites to the Massachusetts School Building Association.

Ellisha Walker (at large) and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) introduced a resolution recognizing the Amherst Regional High School Girls’ Swim Team for winning its first ever Division 2 state title. This passed as part of the consent agenda.

A resolution to call on President Biden to cancel student debt was withdrawn by its council sponsor, Pat DeAngelis (District 2), because she would like to further refine the resolution working with Andy Steinberg (at large). It will be brought before the council at a future date.

The council did authorize the council president to submit testimony to the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources in support of a new stretch building code promoting net zero construction.

Town Manager Presents Draft Charge For Solar Bylaw Working Group
Town Manager Paul Bockelman presented his plans to create a working group to advise on the creation of a solar bylaw. 

This group would be composed of seven members, with representatives from the Planning Board, the Energy and Climate Action Committee, the Conservation Committee (ECAC), the Board of Health, the Water Resources Protection Committee, and two knowledgeable community members. All would be appointed by the town manager and approved by the council. Sustainability Coordinator Stephanie Ciccarello would be the staff liaison to the committee. Bockelman also plans to issue a request for proposals to hire a consultant to do a siting study to determine the optimal locations of solar installations. This year’s budget has $75,000 that can be used for this study.

Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) noted that some have objected to people working in the  solar energy industry being on the committee, and said that people who work for the industry are the most knowledgeable people available about practical requirements for solar arrays, such as proximity to electrical substations. In addition, she was concerned that the committee charge does not  include a statement about the importance of  solar energy in meeting our climate goals. Steinberg said that he was uncomfortable having a member of the industry on the committee, and that  they can provide input without being on the committee. It would be like  having a member of the Amherst Police Department on the Community Safety Working Group, he said.

Bockelman replied that the consultant for the siting study would possess the information Hanneke was concerned about. He said he would incorporate pro-solar statements from the Master Plan and prior council initiatives into the committee charge.

Pam Rooney (District 4) said she would like a tighter time frame so that the town can have a solar bylaw by March 2023; the current draft would  merely require a presentation of a proposed bylaw to the council by May 31, 2023. Griesemer also expressed support for moving the deadline for the committee’s report to March 2023. The proposed bylaw would then need public hearings with the Planning Board and Community Resources Committee, and two readings before the town council, before the zoning change could be passed.

Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) wants the committee charge to include environmental justice and agricultural concerns related to solar development. She also suggested that relevant department heads, such as the fire chief, be invited to make recommendations to the committee without necessarily being voting members.

Interviews for the working group will be conducted by the Town Manager and his staff in the near future, with suggested appointments being brought to the council for approval.

Energy And Climate Action Committee Presents 2021 Annual Report
In the ECAC’s annual report, chair Laura Draucker and Ciccarello highlighted areas of progress toward meeting the town’s goals of decreasing fossil fuel use by 25% below 2016 figures by 2025. The report urged that all initiatives for climate change be applied with an equal-justice lens. The committee is anxious to move into the implementation phase of decreasing fossil fuel use with the help of grants from the state, the federal government, and American Rescue Plan Act funds. The report stressed that the town should consider the climate future in all town decisions.

African Heritage Reparations Assembly Presents Moving Personal Narratives
AHRA Chair Michele Miller (District 1) reminded the council of its resolution to combat structural racism , passed in December 2020. While the AHRA continues to work toward rectifying past harms to the African American citizens of Amherst, Miller introduced three members of the assembly to give personal testimony. Moving narratives were provided by Hala Lord, Alexis Reed, and Amilcar Shabazz. Reed’s statement can be read in full here.Miller said she will periodically bring back portions of the 2020 resolutions to keep it in the forefront of council meetings.

The AHRA is waiting for the state legislature to pass a bill allowing towns to establish funds for special purposes, which would allow Amherst to disburse funds to members of the community who have been harmed by racism. Although there are other methods for disbursing funds, the bill currently pending at the state level provides the most direct method. Under this provision, the town, with advice from the town attorney, would draft a home rule petition to allow the payment of reparations. Hanneke suggested that State Representative Mindy Domb, a sponsor of the bill, reach out to legislative counsel to help with the drafting of the petition, since the provision would originate at the state level.

A motion was introduced to ask the town manager to advocate for the special legislation and to define reparations as a special purpose so that funds can be paid under a home rule petition. It passed unanimously.

In public comment, Mattea Kramer noted that the charge for the AHRA expires in 15 months, which she feels does not give the committee enough time to complete the reconciliation process it has undertaken and that will require a great deal of community input.

Increase In Rental Registration Fees Recommended
Councilors Hanneke, Miller, Rooney, Cathy Schoen (District 1), and Jennifer Taub (District 3) sponsored a proposal recommending that that the annual fees that landlords pay for rental permits be raised from $100 per parcel to $250 for up to six units, with an additional $150 if an inspection is required.. The fee for an owner-occupied parcel with up to six units , will remain at $100.

The sponsors note that the rental registration bylaw was created in 2014, and fees have not been raised since then. The bylaw states that the town council sets the fee schedule. The council voted unanimously to refer the matter to the Town Services and Outreach Committee and the Finance Committee for consideration.

Decision On Council Meeting Format Postponed Until March 21 Meeting
The January 3 decision for the council to offer both in-person and remote participation without the presence of the public in Town Hall is due to expire on April 1. Governor Baker has extended the emergency provision that allows remote meetings of public bodies until July 15, 2022. 

Although Schoen and DeAngelis expressed concern about requiring staff members to be present in person, both Bockelman and Clerk Athena O’Keeffe stated that they were happy to abide by the decision of the council. Schoen suggested that the council president be allowed to declare a meeting to be entirely virtual if fewer than five councilors intended to be present in person.

Dorothy Pam (District 3) noted that it is difficult for her to spend so many hours in a mask. Miller said that being a single parent makes it difficult for her to be at home for meetings. Anika Lopes (District 4) thought it would be best to keep the hybrid option due to the varying circumstances of individual councilors.

Citing the March 10 Board of Health meeting in which the current indoor mask mandate will be reevaluated, Hanneke recommended that the council delay this decision on meeting format until March 21. This passed 9-0-3 with Schoen, Steinberg, and Pam abstaining.

Council Praises Appointment Of Earl Miller As Director Of CRESS Program
Bockelman said there was a strong applicant pool for the Director of Community Responders for Equity, Safety, and Service (CRESS) program, but that Earl Miller stood out for the interview team. Bockelman said Miller has a wealth of experience and “knows what it is like to help and be helped.” Most recently, Miller worked for the Department of Mental Health. He has been following what Amherst has been doing and watched every meeting of the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG). He will start on March 21. Former CSWG co-chair Ellisha Walker (District 5) said she was happy to see this CSWG initiative come to fruition. She stated that Miller was “a fantastic choice.” 

Town Manager Report
The full report can be read elsewhere in the Indy.

Last weekend was the “first weekend in March” ( formerly called the “Blarney Blowout”). It was hoped that the partying would be less this year, but there were 37 medical transports on Saturday, 23 due to student partying. There were also six arrests, despite the permissive attitude of the police on Saturday. A triage center was established at the hockey game that evening to handle students who might need care due to alcohol abuse. The town and the university will be conducting after action analysis to address how to proceed for the rest of year and next year with regard to student partying.

Bockelman added that the tree warden has determined that the Merry Maple must be torn down due to disease. Also, the town has received a $80,000 Park-less grant from the state to create two outdoor dining areas in parking places. The town is currently talking to the BID about whether these areas would be utilized if the mask mandate were no longer in effect.

Hanneke noted that the report mentioned that Amherst may be providing public safety services to Pelham in the future and wanted to make sure Amherst is adequately compensated for the full cost of these services. Bockelman said that the Pelham police chief is retiring in 2023, and these discussions are in a very early stage.

Bockelman said that although polling places probably won’t change,  individuals’ polling places might be different because precincts and districts have been redrawn. The town is working on a mailing to go out to all residents regarding their polling places in April. The polling places will be discussed at the March 21 council meeting.

The meeting adjourned at 9:24 p.m. The next meeting on March 21 will include discussion of sewer regulations, polling places, public way requests for the Farmers’ Market and mobile market, and Kendrick Park updates.

At 5:30 the council will have a working session on formulating a new rental bylaw. This will be one hour for councilors only, with no public comment. After that, the council will have a public forum on the Community Preservation Act Committee recommendations for 2023. 

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