Planning Board votes to hold Town Meeting spots for multiple proposed tree-cutting bylaws

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The Planning Board is keeping its options open when it comes to dealing with commercial ground-mounted solar, voting at Monday’s special meeting to put placeholders on the Town Meeting warrant for both a general bylaw and a zoning bylaw addressing tree-cutting, while deciding to keep the placeholder for the solar overlay district map.

The deadline to submit an article for the warrant is Tuesday, which is why the Planning Board scheduled a special meeting for Monday. The board last week decided to send a request to the Select Board for that board to sponsor the general bylaw article, but the Select Board declined, indicating it was a better fit coming from the Planning Board or Zoning Advisory Committee (ZAC).

The Planning Board will host a public hearing on March 1 for most of its articles, although the tree-cutting bylaws might be pushed to March 15.

The board must make a decision by April 13, when the warrant is signed, regarding which items to keep and what changes to make.

While the proposed tree-cutting bylaw is squarely aimed at limiting commercial ground-mounted solar, Planning Board member Mary Larson-Marlowe, who also serves as ZAC chair, said town counsel strongly advised against any proposed bylaws that single out solar.

“We would need to do a separate bylaw that would cover all areas of development, not just solar, and address the tree-cutting part of it,” Larson-Marlowe said. “Otherwise we have no protections against the clear cutting of trees in town at all. Considering what a heavily wooded town it is, it’s surprising that we don’t.”

There is a general bylaw addressing tree-cutting right now, but Larson-Marlowe noted, “It doesn’t say much.”

The board voted 8-0 for the general bylaw placeholder, and 7-1 for the zoning bylaw, with Jane Moran voting against, expressing concern about how it would be presented and the potential for future lawsuits.

Planning Board chair Gary Trendel said he looked forward to finding the right wording to give the town more control over commercial solar as well as other projects.

“If done properly it can be not only a tool to help us ensure that the right types of solar projects are installed, but it can also be a tool to help encourage things like open-space subdivisions and protect an asset that I think is really important to a lot of people across Hopkinton,” he said. “So it’s something to me that warrants some discussion. I realize that it’s likely going to be controversial. I think that the devil’s in the details. To echo Jane’s point, there’s a lot to work through. But my impression from ZAC is they’re willing to take this on. I think it’s important that we work it through its process and see where it lands. If done right I think it can have the desired effect. If done wrong there are likely unintended consequences.”

There was some discussion about the best strategy not just to craft the proposed bylaws but how to present them to voters. Planning Board member Muriel Kramer noted that a general bylaw change requires a simple majority at Town Meeting, while a zoning bylaw requires a two-thirds vote — and gives the town more power.

“Zoning bylaws have a higher threshold because they are sturdier and more enforceable and give the town probably greater exercise of control,” she said.

Trendel recommended removing the article featuring the solar overlay district map, which the board voted to support last week. Trendel said the other bylaws would better address the issue and keep it cleaner for Town Meeting. He noted that the board would not have time to make major changes to the map due to the current deadlines, as the process requires notification of abutters and a public hearing. Town counsel previously advised that the map would be challenging to defend in court because it is very restrictive in where commercial ground-mounted solar is allowed.

“I worry that the overlay district, even if it’s just on the Town Meeting warrant, is going to muddy things up to a degree where I think it’s going to potentially undercut our overall objectives with these bylaw changes,” he said. “For me, I’m having a hard time getting comfortable with it.”

Muriel Kramer said she was open to eventually removing it but wanted it to remain for now.

“I am hesitant to take it off, because I want to make sure that … the public has an opportunity through our process to see it happen and understand the decision-making and have a chance to give their initial feedback,” she said.

A motion to remove the map article received support from only Trendel and Moran, with the other six members in attendance voting to keep it.

The Zoning Advisory Committee held a meeting Monday immediately after the Planning Board concluded to start the process of finding the ideal wording for the proposed tree-cutting bylaws.

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