VASSALBORO: Over two dozen citizens attend public hearing on moratorium

by Mary Grow

The Vassalboro select board’s Sept. 29 public hearing on the solar moratorium question that’s on the Nov. 8 local ballot drew more than two dozen residents and lasted almost an hour. Most of the discussion was on a different topic.

The moratorium ordinance, if voters approve it, would stop all town action on applications for commercial solar developments for 180 days, a period select board members could extend. The purpose is to give town officials time to amend local ordinances to better address issues specific to commercial solar projects, “to protect the public from health and safety risks.”

Specifics suggested included provisions for removing solar installations at the end of their useful life and guaranteeing funding for removal; setbacks, screening and buffers; and effects on natural resources.

When select board chairman Barbara Redmond called for a show of hands, almost everyone present was in favor of the moratorium. Two residents explained their reservations: one has specific concerns about imprecise wording, and another does not want to discourage development of solar energy.

The Vassalboro Planning Board has already approved several commercial solar farms. Board chairman Virginia Brackett, in the audience, explained that the board used Vassalboro’s Site Review Ordinance, which regulates commercial and industrial development in general, to review the applications.

The majority of the Sept. 29 speakers oppose what appears to be another planned commercial solar development behind a residential area on the west side of Main Street (Route 32), north of Duratherm Window Company, between the road and Outlet Stream.

Brackett said the planning board has received preliminary information on a solar development there, and might have an application in time for its Nov. 1 meeting. Despite repeated suggestions that the Nov. 1 planning board meeting was the proper forum to discuss the project, several audience members used the Sept. 29 hearing to share their concerns.

Most speakers live near the proposed site. Some talked about surveyors planting stakes in a large tract of land and trespassing on abutting properties. Some advised the audience to do research on solar panels, and shared information they found and conclusions they drew.

According to these residents, leachate and stormwater run-off from solar panels contain lead, arsenic and other hazardous substances. This run-off kills wildlife, including thousands of birds.

Runoff from the proposed solar panels would contaminate groundwater, and when it got into Outlet Stream, one speaker predicted, it would flow downstream and contaminate the swimming area in North Vassalboro. Migrating alewives would carry the contaminants upstream into China Lake, the water supply for Kennebec Water District.

The other concern speakers voiced was about the electromagnetic fields they said emanate from solar farms, also deadly to wildlife and to people, causing cancer and other forms of illness.

Another speaker mentioned the pesticides allegedly used to kill grass under the panels as yet another source of water contamination.

Brackett, Conservation Commission member Holly Weidner and select board members reminded the audience that because Vassalboro has no zoning, commercial developments cannot be excluded from residential areas. Nor, Weidner said, does Vassalboro have a comprehensive plan that might designate areas inappropriate for commercial activities.

In the past, town committees invested time and effort to write zoning ordinances and comprehensive plans, only to have voters refuse to adopt them.

Select board member Chris French said the voters’ decisions were based on respect for landowners’ rights. Weidner called for a “community conversation” on the proper balance between individual rights and regulation.

Brackett said one requirement in the current site review ordinance is that a developer notify abutters, including those across the road as well as owners of adjoining property, before the planning board discusses a permit application. If the solar farm application is on the Nov. 1 planning board agenda, abutters will be notified by certified mail and their receipts included in the application.

“We can’t allow them [developers] to present an application if they have not notified the abutters,” Brackett said.

Vassalboro Planning Board meetings are normally held at 7 p.m. the first Tuesday of each month in the town office meeting room. Brackett and Town Manager Mary Sabins said the Oct. 4 planning board agenda included no applications; members of the two boards intended a joint discussion of a future solar ordinance.

The Sept. 29 select board meeting included a second public hearing, this one on the annual updates to the town’s General Assistance Ordinance, required by the state. The hearing was brief and the amended ordinance was approved unanimously.

In other business, Vassalboro Historical Society treasurer John Melrose and vice-chairman Raymond Breton reminded select board members that the historical society building, the former East Vassalboro schoolhouse, belongs to the town. They asked for town funds for needed updates, beginning with a new heating and ventilation system.

Melrose recommended select board members appoint a small committee to consider and make recommendations on building needs.

Transfer station manager George Hamar again urged providing a cover over the new compactor at the transfer station. A cover is needed to protect the controls from weather, and to keep rain and snow out of the box of trash, so the town will not pay to have water hauled away.

Hamar has discussed possibilities with road foreman Eugene Field. Redmond encouraged him to see what he and Field can work out, at what cost.

Fire chief Walker Thompson and rescue unit head Dan Mayotte attended the meeting to discuss future relations with Delta Ambulance. With no Delta representative present, Redmond postponed discussion. She intends to have the topic on the select board’s Oct. 13 agenda, if someone from Delta is available that evening.

Board members unanimously accepted an offer from Steve Jones, of Fieldstone Gardens, to plant trees in East Vassalboro’s Monument Park, in anticipation of the need to remove some aged trees.

They tentatively scheduled a discussion of uses for federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money for their Oct. 27 meeting. French encouraged any resident with ideas for using the funds to suggest them to a board member or to town office staff.

Vassalboro has received a little more than $464,000 in ARPA funds. Over $238,500 has been appropriated, leaving an available balance of more than $225,500.

Select board members postponed several internal issues, like financial questions and the previously-planned Oct. 6 goal-setting session, until 2023, when Sabins’ successor will become town manager. Board members might meet Oct. 6 anyway, to continue developing their process for choosing a new manager.

The next regular Vassalboro select board meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 13.


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