Sunderland voters OK battery storage bylaw, agree to ask Legislature to lower municipal voting age

Sunderland Town Administrator Geoff Kravitz, Selectboard members Dan Murphy, Christyl Drake-Tremblay and Chair Nathaniel Waring, as well as Moderator David Pierce at Sunderland’s Annual Town Meeting on Friday night.

Sunderland Town Administrator Geoff Kravitz, Selectboard members Dan Murphy, Christyl Drake-Tremblay and Chair Nathaniel Waring, as well as Moderator David Pierce at Sunderland’s Annual Town Meeting on Friday night. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

Nearly 90 residents attended Sunderland’s Annual Town Meeting on Friday night, as they approved all 18 articles on the warrant.

Nearly 90 residents attended Sunderland’s Annual Town Meeting on Friday night, as they approved all 18 articles on the warrant. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 04-29-2024 12:31 PM

SUNDERLAND — Nearly 90 voters overwhelmingly approved 18 articles on Friday’s Town Meeting warrant, including battery storage and structure conversion bylaws, as well as a citizen’s petition seeking to ask the Legislature to lower the municipal voting age to 16 years old.

In a two-hour meeting, voters quickly worked through the warrant until the battery storage bylaw, which would allow large-scale, ground-mounted solar electric facilities with batteries and stand-alone battery storage facilities up to 4 acres in the C-2 District through a special permit issued by the Planning Board, while also amending current Sunderland bylaws to prohibit accessory battery storage outside the C-2 District.

Residents also approved a roughly $10.6 million budget for fiscal year 2025, which is a 3.6%, or $363,435, increase over the current year’s figures.

Planning Board Chair Dana Roscoe explained the proposed battery storage bylaw changes are designed to tighten up Sunderland’s bylaws regarding battery facilities. Several other towns in the Pioneer Valley have attempted to pass related bylaws with varying success, as the attorney general has previously thrown out ones in Wendell and Shutesbury.

“What we’re attempting to do with this bylaw is say where you can do it in Sunderland and how you can do it in Sunderland,” Roscoe said, noting the AG’s office is against blanket bans in town bylaws. “The idea that we can just say, ‘Forget it, you can’t do it at all in Sunderland,’ is not an option. There is no guarantee the attorney general will approve what we have proposed, but we are trying to protect the town the best we can.”

Numerous residents spoke in favor of the changes, including Zoning Board of Appeals Chair Steve Krol, who said this is a good safeguard for the town to have.

“The likelihood of a battery storage proposal coming to Sunderland is pretty high,” Krol said. “It is responsible for the town to have some bylaws protecting, to the best of our ability, our ability to control where this would be sited because if we don’t, we’ll have no protection whatsoever.”

Meanwhile, the structure conversion bylaw approved Friday amends the town’s multi-family dwelling bylaws by allowing existing buildings prior to 1978 with an area of more than 10,000 square feet to be converted into multi-family dwellings with up to eight units though a special permit issued by the Planning Board.

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Roscoe said the main priority in proposing the article is to help the owner of the former Cozy Corner nursing home redevelop the property into housing. He added there are only 33 properties in town in excess of 10,000 square feet that were in existence prior to 1978 and 27 of them are already apartment buildings. Of the remaining six buildings, he said the former nursing home is the only one that would feasibly be used for this purpose.

“Our intention was to create an opportunity for a property owner to improve their property with as little impact to the town as we could,” Roscoe said.

While the article was overwhelmingly approved, several residents raised concerns about the need for the bylaw when the state Chapter 40B program exists, which also encourages affordable housing.

“We already do have a mechanism in town for development of that property that can be utilized right now and it would take care of one of the most pressing needs in the commonwealth and that’s affordable housing,” said former longtime Selectboard member Tom Fydenkevez. “What we can do is we can use [Chapter 40B] in the friendly manner, which would allow the town to negotiate with the developer and that could bring in affordable housing.”

Krol, the ZBA chair and an abutter to Cozy Corner, said the bylaw could be used to get the building back on the tax rolls, while creating several housing units that would not disturb the neighborhood. If the town were to reject the bylaw, he said, the developer could then choose to knock the building down and build numerous single-family homes on the 9-acre lot, which could severely affect the neighborhood.

“It is very restrictive and this change to allow up to eight units into this bylaw is an avenue to make the best possible deal for the town for this property,” Krol said. “This is a pretty simple change that allows a property that is not in use — and actually starting to be derelict — to bring it in and provide some housing.”

Lower voting age

Finally, residents also signed off on a citizen’s petition put forward by several Frontier Regional School seventh graders asking the town to petition the Legislature to lower the municipal voting age to 16, which they say could spur civic engagement among young people in the community.

Several residents spoke against the petition, as they were concerned about students who aren’t paying property taxes affecting adults who do because, as resident Larry Rivais said, these decisions could “cost your neighbors money.”

“I also applaud students who want to vote, students who want to participate in democracy. … I understand and value new ideas, fresh ideas, a way of looking at things that us old folks don’t have,” Rivais said. “But this isn’t the place to learn it. Casting a vote is not a classroom activity. … We’re looking for voters who have experience, who have come to a bunch of meetings.”

Those in favor of the petition, including several Frontier Regional and Sunderland school committee members and Selectboard Chair Nathaniel Waring, said there is no guarantee the adults who vote are informed. Waring noted there are currently 44 16-year-olds in Sunderland and the odds of all of them participating in elections and Town Meetings are low.

“We’re not expecting 44 16-year-olds to show up every single time … but letting those three or four who really want to be involved, to me, is more important than the 18-year-olds who don’t want to be involved,” Waring said. “I can’t get my kids to come [to Town Meeting] and I’m on the Selectboard. … It’s not going to make a huge swing.”

The article was approved with a clear majority. Other articles approved by voters include $405,670 in capital projects for public safety and public works departments and $177,000 in Community Preservation Act funding for repairs to the Graves Memorial Library.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com.