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Heath puts moratorium on turbine, solar farm projects

HEATH – A special town meeting to put a temporary moratorium on large-scale wind turbine and solar generating facilities brought out a large crowd that shouted out “aye” when the article came up for a vote.

Although it wasn’t unanimous, all but one or two of the 81 voters quickly agreed to impose a four-month temporary moratorium on wind and photovoltaic systems capable of generating more than 35 kilowatts of energy.

The article amends the town’s zoning bylaws by adding a new section on temporary moratoriums, saying: “There is an identifiable community need to establish long-term zoning regulations to ensure that such uses and development will be consistent with the town’s long-term planning interest.”

Planning Board Chairman Calvin Carr said that since the state has put its wind turbine siting bylaw proposal on hold, the town has nothing but a special permit process with which to review any large wind or solar energy proposals. And if the special permit was denied, and the applicant challenged the decision in court, the lack of an energy siting bylaw would weaken the town’s case, Carr said. “We’re really just naked, when it comes to this issue, because we have no bylaw,” he said. “We feel, as a board, we need to come up with a bylaw. We can’t wait for the state to do it.”

At a recent public hearing for the moratorium, a dozen residents signed up to serve on a Renewable Energy Advisory Committee, which is to help the Planning Board research the wind and solar energy issues and to make recommendations to the board regarding the siting for commercial-scale wind and solar projects. That new committee was voted on by selectmen after the special town meeting, with those who signed up appointed to it.

The Planning Board could bring an alternative energy zoning bylaw to May’s annual town meeting, or it may request a longer moratorium, to give the board until the 2013 annual town meeting to put forth a bylaw that adequately protects the town, said Carr.

Town Moderator Douglas Wilkins said he asked that this moratorium be temporary, so that a larger body of residents at annual town meeting could hear the issues and have their say.

When asked if the town could indefinitely postpone proposals by extending the moratorium, Carr said courts have upheld such moratoriums for up to two years, but that the board had to show it is using that time to work on its bylaw.

“The basis for a moratorium to exist and be legal is you have to show a pattern of your research,” he said. “You can’t do (the moratorium) forever. We want to get these bylaws on the books as fast as we can, but we want to do it responsibly.”

When asked if a company has shown interest in putting up such a system in town, Wilkins replied: “I don’t think that matters. We need to protect the town.”

When asked if the moratorium itself could be challenged in court, Wilkins responded: “Reasonable actions taken at a town meeting, I believe, are relatively safe.” The Planning Board has been researching possible wind turbine bylaws with Peggy Sloan of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments for about six months.

Heath is the first West County town to put a moratorium into place, although Colrain has put a similar warrant article on its special town meeting for March 12. The Shelburne Planning Board is discussing whether it needs a moratorium while it moves forward on a wind turbine siting bylaw. And in Buckland, a wind turbine moratorium was on the selectmen’s agenda for Tuesday night.