Pepperell Town Meeting passes multiple bylaws

Plastic bags, solar panels and noise voted on by residents

Duncan Premus speaking on his proposed plastic bag ban at the Pepperell Special Town Meeting

PEPPERELL – Multiple issues were discussed and voted on by local residents during the special town meeting at Nissitissit Middle School on Monday night, ranging from a ban on single-use plastic bags to specifying what kinds of solar panels are allowed in town.

Three of the 11 bylaws on the meeting’s warrant were subject to lengthy discussion: a bylaw banning single-use plastic checkout bags in town stores; a zoning bylaw amendment adding regulations for installing solar energy systems; and a bylaw setting guidelines for noise control in town.

Ten of the 11 articles were approved by voters at the meeting while Article 8, which would’ve authorized the Board of Selectmen to petition the General Court for special legislation restricting soil reclamation projects, was motioned to take no action by Selectman Margaret Scarsdale. Town Administrator Andrew MacLean explained that the take no action motion was for the board to review the article more so that it meets “legislative intent” required for town meetings.

The first high-profile article up for discussion was the plastic bag ban, proposed by high school sophomore Duncan Premus at a Board of Selectmen meeting this past August.

The ban states no store in town shall provide any customer a single-use plastic checkout bag by Jan. 1, 2020, with stores having to offer reusable bags or recyclable paper bags instead. Since single-use plastic bags aren’t usually biodegradable and can contribute to pollution, the ban is meant to lessen the town’s overall levels of plastic and improve the environment.

Residents spoke both in favor and against the bylaw. One of those against the proposal was Melinda Wilkins of the R. Wilkins Farm Stand on South Road, who asked about how the ban would impact the work of grocery store cashiers and raised concerns about unsanitary bags being brought into stores.

“This bag thing causes a lot of difficulty cashiering,” Wilkins said. “This is making it so people are bringing unsanitary bags of their own and there are products in the bags that you don’t realize, like a paperclip. We should let people choose what kind of bags they want.”

Premus had backup for his proposal: his mother, Denene Premus, who is running for a vacant seat on the Board of Selectmen, and his sister, McKenna Premus, a student at UMass Amherst.

“The sad reality is that the number of plastic bags recycled is less than 10 percent,” Mrs. Premus said. “The average plastic bag is used for 12 minutes. The goal is to get people to rethink amount of plastics they use, it’s our responsibility to do something better.”

“We need to start looking at options to become a greener community,” McKenna said. “I attended climate strike a few weeks ago, so this is important at a time like this.”

The second major article to be discussed was the zoning bylaw amendment impacting solar installations in town. The amendment detailed height restrictions for roof-mounted solar energy structures and setback requirements for ground-mounted solar structures, along with the maintenance responsibilities for owners of these structures.

The Planning Board acknowledged that local residents wanted to have zoning provisions laid out for solar panels back in 2018. Moderator Scott Blackburn noted that the proposed amendment was brought up at the previous town meeting in May but it “wasn’t quite ready for prime time yet.”

One resident particularly excited about getting the amendment approved was Jeff Ratta, who has a pair of solar panels on his property on Mount Lebanon Street and pushed for the amendment at the last town meeting. Ratta wanted to lease his land to a solar panel company looking to develop a solar panel farm in the back of his land.

“This has been going on for at least two years and every time it gets postponed, people lose the opportunity to gain access to electricity and it’s not fair,” Ratta said.

Planning Board Chair Richard McHugh Jr. also shared interest in getting the amendment approved given the work the board put into developing it.

“We spent a good part of the last 18 months crafting this bylaw,” McHugh said. “I know that the Planning Board has rolled-up its sleeves many a night to get this ready and I’d encourage the town to take it.”

After making two quick changes to the amendment involving the allowable minimal surface area for small and medium-scale solar energy system can occupy, the article was approved.

The article setting regulations on noise was also debated,and eventually approved. The bylaw, proposed by the town’s Light, Air, and Noise Bylaw Committee, deems excessive noise as a “potential health hazard” as well as a “nuisance.”

The bylaw deems it “unlawful” for any person in town to produce excessive or unwarranted noise, which the bylaw defines as any condition where a sound source raises a noise level by 10 or more A-weighted decibels, or dBA, above the ambient noise level. A persistent noise source that is louder than 65 dBA will also not be allowed in town and the bylaw itself will be enforced by the Board of Health. Exceptions to this rule include construction or maintenance equipment, commercial trash collection, commercial deliveries or pickups and domestic mechanical equipment, all within reasonable hours.

“Pepperell does not have a noise problem, but we don’t want to have one,” Scarsdale, who is also the chair of the LAN Committee, said. “We’ve heard numerous concerns that this will forbid loud cars and parties and music, but if any of these are bothering you then call the police and they’ll handle the issue. This simply prohibits persistent excessive noise, any activity that is detrimental to the town’s enjoyment. If it’s not a problem today it won’t be one tomorrow.”

A few residents had questions about noises being caused by specific pieces of equipment, including a chainsaw or a dirt bike. LAN Committee member Harvey Serreze clarified that the bylaw was meant to keep the town from suffering from “monstrous events like compression stations” rather than household items.

LAN Committee Vice Chair Sherrill Rosoff added to that clarification later on.

“One of the reasons for doing this is that the State Department of Environmental Protection defines noise as air pollution,” she said. “If we’re to maintain some kind of local control on this, then we can have a local means of entering the conversation instead of waiting a year-and-a-half for this to kick up to the state”

The bylaw was approved by voters, 182 to 41.

Voters also:

  • Approved the 2017 annual town report.
  • Approved to rescind the adoption of a General Law Chapter 48 Section 42A regarding the powers, duties and responsibilities of the fire chief. The law was super-ceded by the acceptance of General Law 48 Section 42 at the Oct. 24 2016 special town meeting.
  • Approved an annual increase in the asset limit for real estate tax exemptions granted to senior citizens, surviving spouses and surviving minors.
  • Approved an annual increase in the income and asset limits for real estate tax exemptions granted to senior citizens.
  • Approved to increase the previously-approved borrowing amount for a proposed water treatment plant at the Bemis water well site from $8 million to $8.5 million after final bids on the project were higher than estimated.
  • Approved the transfer of custody and control of 148 Lowell Road to the Board of Selectmen, which would allow the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Game to acquire the property.
  • Approved the appropriation and transfer of $125,000 from the General Stabilization Fun to the repair of the heating system at the Peter Fitzpatrick School property.