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Shutesbury OKs solar contract

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SHUTESBURY — Shutesbury residents signaled their approval for all seven articles on the ballot at Tuesday’s special town meeting in a brisk, focused session.

The diverse set of measures included negotiations for a solar array and the re-establishment of floodplain districts in the town, as well as several payment transfers and other special business. Though several items attracted extra discussion, all measures put before the meeting were approved unanimously.

Voters took special interest in the solar contract, which was raised to the gathering through an article to authorize the Select Board to enter an agreement with a private company to host a solar array for up to 25 years. Under the terms of the Massachusetts Green Community Act of 2008, the town could collect revenues through a metering arrangement in exchange for providing a site and infrastructure to the partner company.

Town officials stressed that the article was intended as a preliminary step rather than a binding commitment.

“This question is only about whether or not to allow the board to enter an agreement for a solar plant in the first place,” explained Town Administrator Rebecca Torres. “No action will be taken until the board completes negotiations and sees that the town is getting the best deal possible.”

Members of the board had been in discussions with energy provider National Grid over two suggested sites for an array, one at the existing power substation on Sandhill Road and the other on West Pelham Road.

A proposed metering rate of half-a-cent per kilowatt-hour generated at the site could raise approximately $15,000 per year for Shutesbury.

“It’s unlikely that the town would build its own solar array of this size any time soon,” said Torres, who added that a swift negotiating time line would be most likely to maintain interest from potential partners. “We’ve been moving slowly as we explore all the options, but if we don’t get voter approval for this, potential partners might decide to move on,” she said. After some discussion, the article passed without opposition.

Procedural issues had delayed the floodplain establishment plan put before voters on Tuesday from Shutesbury’s annual meeting in April. The final measure bundled together four changes to the town’s bylaws that would establish floodplain overlay zones over qualifying town property in accordance with state and federal guidelines.

“Some mortgage lenders will require flood preparedness from the town so that we can ensure protection for the affected homeowners,” said Jeff Lacy, who worked on the changes with other town officials.

The plan will use federal maps to determine areas under threat from a 100-year storm, and will put in place requirements for future development in those areas and mandate regulatory channels and other preventative measures along especially vulnerable stretches of waterway. Lacy asserted that the changes were a return to form after the town hadn’t had an effective flooding plan since 1980.

“Now Shutesbury is one out of only four municipalities in the commonwealth without an effective flood plan,” he said. All the proposed changes were passed.

Other questions put to the meeting included payment transfers from the general fund to pay for extant expenses from the Board of Assessors and a recycling contract between the town and Duseau Trucking of Amherst, totaling $625.06, and a change in term length for the Town Constable from one to three years.

Voters also approved a larger payment of $10,277.00 to Verizon Inc., part of a larger settlement between the service provider and partner municipalities in Massachusetts stemming from a 2009 dispute between the state and Verizon over a change in valuation of the company’s taxable property that year.

“This will cover the total payment for us,” said Stephen Schmidt of the Board of Assessors, who noted that subsequent changes to Massachusetts law eliminated the grounds for the dispute. “We will only need to pay for that one year’s disparity,” he said.

The proceedings at the meeting were completed in under an hour with no major disputes and the unanimous approval of all measures presented.

Memories of a more contentious period in town politics did surface with a last article to present Town Clerk Leslie Bracebridge with $5,000 in back pay for overtime hours worked during the extended debate over a proposed new library earlier this year that attracted local controversy and national attention with several close, even tied, votes.

“I wasn’t sure if we would have to do another recount,” Select Board member J. April Stein said after the vote was taken.

The extra funds were approved unanimously, without any vocal objection from those present.

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