WATERVILLE — The Planning Board postponed making recommendations Monday night to the City Council on whether two properties should be rezoned to allow solar farms, after the link the public used to join the meeting failed 21 minutes into the virtual session.

The board also postponed to June 22 a recommendation to the council on whether to change the zoning ordinance to create a new Solar Farm District, in which the only permitted use would be solar farms.

Kevin Violette of Holmes Farm Associates wants the city to rezone a parcel on County Road from Rural Residential to Solar Farm District.

Roland Rossignol and NextGrid also want the city to rezone land on Webb Road, west of Interstate 95, from Rural Residential to Solar Farm District.

The Planning Board is not authorized to make zone changes, but can recommend such changes to the City Council, which is the only entity that can make zone changes.

The council voted 5-2 on April 21 to refer to the Planning Board for public hearing and recommendation a request to create a Solar Farm Zone.

Councilors Rick Foss, R-Ward 5, and Sydney Mayhew, R-Ward 4, voted against the move, saying they did not think solar farms should be in rural residential areas. The council that night also voted 6-1, with Foss the lone dissenter, to refer to the Planning Board for public hearing and recommendation Violette’s request that the council rezone the property on County Road so as to allow a solar farm there.

But the Planning Board took a straw vote Monday to give the solar farm developers an idea of how they will vote later this month. Board members said that those developers were at the meeting and prepared to speak, and they should be given a sense about whether their projects will be approved or rejected.

All board members except Cathy Weeks indicated they would approve the projects, though Weeks did not say she would vote against them. She said she had two concerns and the first is about how the residents living in those areas would be affected.

Developer Kevin Violette is seeking approval from the Waterville Planning Board for a proposed solar farm on land off County Road. Photo courtesy of Bruce White

“This is zoned as rural residential, so I have a concern about that, and I think that some of you have overlooked that it is zoned for rural residential,” Weeks said.

People were able to email questions and comments to Beverage about the projects, but after the livestream link failed Monday, Weeks several times said she did not think it appropriate for the board to continue discussions while the public was not able to hear what was being discussed.

“I would like to request we postpone this until we can meet in person so residents can come and discuss their concerns with us,” Weeks said.

The board decided to allow the solar farm developers to speak because they had come prepared to do so, but planners decided they would not take votes on the proposals until the next meeting.

Violette said the plans for County Road call for about 20 acres of solar panels on a 43-acre parcel adjacent to a 10-lot subdivision that was approved but has not been developed. The solar farm project, he said, would generate taxes for the city.

“This uniquely fits with what the governor is proposing for solar farms,” he said.

Board member Bruce White said he and board member Samantha Burdick visited the site and spoke to Violette. White described the project as “professionally done.”

“At this point, it just seems to be a pretty worthwhile project,” he said.

White said that, down the road, if the project is dismantled, a plan is in place to remove debris that may result from it.

“I don’t think there’s really any concern about it,” he said.

Developers for the Webb Road project said solar panels would be erected on less than 20 acres.

 

TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES

The board was able to take two votes before losing the livestream link Monday night.

Members voted 7-0 to approve a request by Trafton Properties to build a 20,700-square-foot parking lot next to its building at 977 West River Road. The paved lot would add 56 spaces to existing parking. According to plans, three trees and five evergreen shrubs will be planted between the lot and residential properties to the south.

The board also voted 7-0 to recommend to the council that 174-192 College Ave. be rezoned from Commercial-C to Contract Zoned District/General Industrial to allow PRO Moving Services to hire a live-in security guard for the premises.

Another item the board postponed Monday was a request by Kingston Properties LLC to approve a final plan to develop four residential units at 209 College Ave. Kingston representative Chris McMorrow apparently was unable to connect with the meeting livestream, according to City Planner Ann Beverage. Board members also were hesitant to vote on an item on which the public could not comment.

The meeting was also accessible via Crossroads TV’s channel 1301, but Weeks and Beverage said that once the livestream link was lost, some people may have just surmised they would not be able to re-connect. Apparently, at one point, a new link was created, according to some board members.

Early on in the meeting, when some board members appeared to be increasingly frustrated with the technical difficulties, Board Chairman Paul Lussier said the situation wasn’t tenable.

“I will resign from the board before I have another meeting like this,” he said.

At the end of the nearly two-hour meeting, Lussier said, “The city needs to step up and find a place where people can meet,” and asked Beverage to check with City Manager Michael Roy about where a Planning Board meeting can be held June 22.

The city had been using the Chace Community Forum in the Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons, which College College owns, but it is closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It might be more appropriate coming from the chairman of the Planning Board,” Beverage replied.

Lussier said he would be happy to meet with Roy about that issue, but board member Bruce White said if meetings are going to held in-person, it is important people follow state health and safety guidelines regarding the coronavirus.

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