Town of New Salem Selectboard

Meeting Minutes

 November 30, 2020

Held Virtually via Zoom

Convened: 7:00 pm

Present: Randy Gordon, Wayne Hachey, Jean Derderian, Selectboard; Nancy Aldrich, Town Coordinator; Jen Potee, Cam Dunbar, Board of Health; Joe Cuneo, Fire Chief & Emergency Management Director; Claire McGinnis, Library Board of Trustees; Brad Foster, 1794 Meetinghouse; Ken Holmberg, Assessors; Bill Lafley, Board of Assessors; Steve McGinnis; Bruce Spencer;Jackson Goddard; Peter Fisher and Sandy Fisher; Rosemary Lyman; Bill Lafley; Genie Gunn Casey; Francis Arnold; Steven Schoenberg; Amy Fagin, Zoning Board of Appeals

Selectboard Reviewed & Signed the Following:

  • Payroll & Vendor Warrants
  • HCA Certification form
  • Hazardous Materials Grant Contract

Discussion Items

Tax Classification Hearing

Ken started by asking the Selectboard to vote on the options for the tax rate. The Assessors have discussed the various options and agree that for this year they recommend the Selectboard adopt a single tax rate and none of the options for the small commercial exemption, residential exemption, or open space discount. This year we have a new Town Accountant and we are still waiting for that official and the Town Clerk to agree on town meeting votes and a few other matters. Values have increased slightly due to new construction, but there have also been increases in expenses. The rate will likely go up around .50 cents per thousand. The town is currently at $18.05 per thousand. The likely rate will stay under $19 per thousand. Jean asked why the Assessors are opposed to the exemptions. Ken responded that the ones he’s talking about are ones that come up every year. These include a residential exemption for those who live full time in town, a small commercial exemption and an open space exemption. The residential exemption benefits those who live in town at the expense of those who only live seasonally. The small commercial exemption would only beneficial to a few businesses and detrimental to any larger ones. The open space discount really doesn’t apply to New Salem and isn’t truly an option. Jean asked about the small business exemption specifically. Ken responded that most of the small businesses in town are operating from home and wouldn’t truly benefit. He emphasized the need to get tax bills out before the end of the calendar year and why avoiding these exemptions can help with that at this late a date.

Discussion then shifted back to the exemptions. Randy noted that in the majority of the years he’s sat on the Selectboard the town has stuck with one rate and foregone the exemptions. The small commercial exemption in particular discourages larger businesses in town and could be detrimental. Ken concurred, noting that there are some new business, like Ancient Growth, which are coming to town and will pay other forms of taxes in addition to ordinary taxes. He reminded that we have a new Town Accountant who only came on in October. This isn’t a good time to really change up what’s done. Next year may be better. Wayne concurred noting that businesses are really being squeezed right now. Jean pointed out that small cottage industries in town are the hardest hit this year and they need the help all the more. She noted that the General Court allows the exemptions because of concerns about equity and for people who are struggling to stay in the communities they live in and help build. She didn’t think that the small commercial business exemption would make a significant difference for larger businesses, but could help small ones. Wayne asked whether utility companies benefit at all or are hurt by the small commercial exemption. Ken responded that they could be effected. He reminded this is the same thing that the town did last year. The town has always rejected these options for a variety of reasons save the few years where the town had a split tax rate. Jean clarified that these exemptions are not in place at this time. Ken responded they are not. The town has a few exemptions for things like veterans, but these have not been adopted.

A motion was made by Wayne to accept the Board of Assessors recommendation to adopt a minimum residential factor of 1 which establishes a single tax rate. The motion was seconded by Randy and passed unanimously.

A motion was made by Wayne to accept the Board of Assessors recommendations not to adopt the residential exemption, the open space exemption, and the small commercial exemption. The motion was seconded by Randy and passed unanimously.  

COVID-19 Update

Jen began by reminding all in attendance that this virus is not going away despite vaccines in the pipeline. Numbers are going up. Most communities are being marked higher than they were. New Salem is trending 5-10 cases per the Commonwealth. Currently it’s about 7. Wendell has had its first case recently as well. She expects that after Thanksgiving and Black Friday that we will only see more cases. Wayne asked if a vaccine does become available what that will mean for New Salem. Jen responded that any vaccine will be targeted for healthcare providers and nursing homes first. She didn’t expect that it would arrive in New Salem any time soon. In her opinion the general population won’t likely see a vaccine until late spring early to summer. Probably summer. Nancy then asked Jen about the Library’s latest re-opening plan. Randy followed by asking if the Board of Health had a position. Jen responded that Board of Health has reviewed the plan and made recommendations. This is really under the authority of the Library Board of Trustees. They don’t have to have approval for this plan, but they have chosen to run the plan by Board of Health. Board of Health is okay with the Library re-opening as long as there is caution. Other libraries have re-opened like Athol’s and things have gone okay so far. Jean noted that the plans limit to those not wearing masks to only curbside services could be unenforceable and challengeable. Two cases are pending currently. One before the Supreme Judicial Court and one at the Federal District Court. Randy then asked who the body should be that determines the opening of buildings. Nancy responded that in terms of the Library it would be presumably the Trustees although ultimately the Selectboard is responsible for town buildings otherwise. This is a little bit of a grey area. Randy asked if approval from both bodies should be sought. Wayne felt it prudent for the Selectboard to approve given the Board of Health’s support. Jean recommended amending the mask requirement. Wayne felt that the curbside service would be going above and beyond and would serve as an accommodation. Jean disagreed. Randy recommended supporting the policy as it is and suggested that if need be it can be changed at a later time whether in response to any worsening of conditions or improvements thereof.

A motion was made by Wayne to approve the plan put forward by the Library for re-opening. The motion was seconded by Randy and passed by majority vote with Jean opposed.

Update on Junkyard Issues in Town

Wayne provided an update on the property on Wendell Rd. That property owner has done some clean up and seems to be improving in his engagement. Jen agreed noting she has noticed a difference there having gone by their multiple times. She asked Wayne to continue checking in through the winter. She’s seen lights on and the house appears to be habitable from the exterior. Still she asked Wayne whether the town should send an official to ask to see the interior. Wayne noted due to the virus it’s likely best to just continue to keep an eye on things through the spring. It was agreed that the Board of Health Agent could do a site visit at that time. Jen then noted on Blackinton Rd she isn’t aware of the latest there with that property. Wayne knew more noting that there is a legal matter going on there that is far greater than what needs to be done for clean-up. He recommended that the ACO be included as there is an animal issue.

1794 Meetinghouse Lease; Update from Town Counsel

Nancy reported that Town Counsel’s response in review to the RFP is mostly positive although he would like to make some tweaks. If the intent is to have a long term lease it should have a town meeting vote and a few other things. Brad noted he only asked for a long term lease due to recommendations made by the Mass Cultural Council. Nancy followed that this will require the full process of an RFP and then a town meeting vote. She was uncertain as to when such a meeting could be held so that should be considered. She then reported that Town Counsel also wants to see a more expansive lease document. Brad asked if it would make a difference if the lease were shorter. Nancy responded that if the lease was shorter it might change things. But she would have to discuss it with Town Counsel to determine if it makes a significant difference. Brad responded that the Meetinghouse’s purpose is to preserve the building more than anything. This lease is truly needed for obtaining grants. He agreed to talk to Mass Cultural Council to find out what they recommend for a precise lease timeframe. It would be great if we could avoid having to wait until town meeting. Nancy recommended asking the Mass Historical Commission as well. Brad was concerned about how this could take another year to obtain progress. His concern mostly being about the well-being of the building itself. Randy asked about the potential for remote town meetings. Nancy was uncertain if they can be done, but agreed to research the matter. Randy noted that we could host around 300 people on Zoom and that would likely be sufficient to hold a virtual meeting. He further noted that the Old Academy Building might also end up with a longer term lease if a town meeting could be had as the Trustees of the New Salem Academy have expressed interest in lengthening their lease term.

Zoning Board of Appeals Role in Barletta Project

Randy reported on some communication between boards regarding whose responsibilities are whose. He asked if there are any definitive answers about the ZBA and the Planning Board on this matter and the process. Amy reported as chair of the ZBA that the ZBA was under the impression regarding any appeal that might be filed for the process. Planning Board has noted that appeal of their decision would be to the superior court. ZBA was under the assumption that it would be the ZBA. That said Town Counsel has informed the ZBA that they don’t have jurisdiction over special permits issued by Planning Board. Wayne noted that the ZBA regulations should be updated to better clarify in light of this. Amy noted that it seems like a number of towns ZBA’s do hear such appeals, but again Town Counsel disagrees. There was a question about that process. Amy clarified about issues that would fall under the ZBA as opposed to the Planning Board. A water tank, the height of the elevator shaft, and the like would fall under ZBA. That said the Planning Board could be allowed to make decisions if allowed so as to streamline the process. The Building Inspector agreed with that feeling it better to have all of that fall under one process. Wayne noted that what was planned from an aesthetic viewpoint for the elevator shaft in particular would look better as Barletta had proposed. Sandy asked about a terrace built by Barletta that is close to her property line. She thought this should have required a variance. Amy responded that this particular matter didn’t come to the ZBA. This would have likely had to be approved by the Building Inspector.

Sandy disputed that there was a building permit for it. She then made various assertions related to the hearing held by Planning Board noting several grievances in that process. Sandy then shared a picture of the terrace and the six-foot fence that was also installed. The terrace has to be about 6-7 feet high and will likely have a handrail. Anyone looking from the terrace could see her entire backyard. Peter noted that a number of requests by him and his wife on this have been ignored. Randy reminded those present that the Selectboard doesn’t likely have any direct authority to address these determinations. Wayne agreed noting this falls to the Building Inspector and perhaps the ZBA from there on appeal. Sandy interjected to simply state on this subject all she’s looking for is her privacy. Genie noted that the ZBA has standing to appeal. He also felt that the Selectboard would have standing to appeal as well. Nancy responded that she has consulted with Town Counsel on this and he has asked all boards and committees to refrain from offering legal advice. This would need to go to superior or land court and Town Counsel requests aggrieved parties to contact attorneys. Jean submitted that while court is always an option, conversations and reconciliation are often better. Amy noted that Town Counsel has been very clear about the jurisdiction here. She was taken aback by this a little. Sandy noted that this terrace doesn’t appear to be part of the special permit issued by the Planning Board. She reiterated her opinion that the terrace matter should have gone through the ZBA for a variance. Wayne responded the enforcement officer there would be the Building Inspector. 

DCR Forest Management Proposals

Nancy reported on a letter from DCR regarding this. They have a 2021 proposal for review for the management of DCR forests. She agreed to send it out for the Selectboard members to consider further.

Updates on Cooleyville Road Bridge

Wayne began by expressing the feeling that the bridge can now be opened safely after he had discussions with MassDOT and other officials. This falls out of the realm of small bridge repairs which leaves the town on its own for repairs. He’s rented a metal detector and spoken with Glen Lyman. When the bridge was built railroad track was put in the cement and the metal detector does show that there is steel in the bridge that runs the full length. With the fact that outside funding isn’t forthcoming and the bridge does have steel support, in his opinion the bridge can be re-opened. There are also the safety concerns for residents in the area exiting on to Rt. 202. He will clear it with the Highway Dept. as well. He proposed a motion to re-open the bridge. Randy asked if there would be restrictions on the weight of the bridge. Wayne suggested some caution signage and possibly a 3-ton limit. The cement blocks there would be moved over but kept near the bridge and a guard rail would be put in place. Jean asked if there is still a question of safety. Wayne responded that the presence of steel in the bridge should indicate that it is safe. The steel under the bridge that’s rusted away was purely structural for allowing the pouring of the slab in the first place. Any other concerns can be monitored over time. Jean asked if this should be done by motion of the Selectboard. Wayne responded that the closing was done by vote of the Selectboard after a report by FRCOG. That said, his understanding of how this was built and with the steel in it, it should be sound. Jean asked Nancy about liability. Nancy responded that the town has to make its best guess on the information that the town has. There is apparently danger in keeping it closed as well, therefore it is a matter of weighing it. Wayne noted that even if the bridge gave way, it’s only a 5-foot drop and it wouldn’t be a catastrophic event. If something happened like the slab breaking way, anyone in a car would be unlikely to suffer a fatality. Jean suggested having a schedule of inspection for monitoring it. Wayne agreed that it should be looked at twice a year at minimum. Still he’d like to see financing to get the bridge further repaired and shored up. It shouldn’t be discounted that the residents on Cooleyville want to see this bridge re-opened and support re-opening it. It was agreed to have regular maintenance review. Further Bruce agreed as a resident to keep the town informed if he sees anything concerning relating to the bridge. Jean expressed appreciation for Wayne’s work on this and agreed that we should continue to work towards ways to fix this up further.

A motion was made by Wayne to re-open the bridge on Cooleyville Rd. The motion was seconded by Randy and passed without objection.

Electrical Service for 37 South Main Street

Nancy presented a letter for 37 South Main Street from National Grid. National Grid is providing this so that the Selectboard understands that the option being presented by National Grid is the only viable option. This is the option for conduit along the road underground for a transformer. Wayne clarified that this is telling the town that this is the only option. Nancy responded affirmatively. Jean noted that there appears to be a problem with capacity. Wayne responded that the transformer apparently cannot be on a pole and needs to be on a pad. He was uncertain as to why that much capacity is necessary. Nancy reminded that National Grid is finding this frustrating as they are not involved in town politics or questioning why the customer is asking for this. They are obligated by MGL to provide service at the most cost effective price to that customer. So National Grid is looking for the town to indicate it is ready to make a decision. This option was objected to by neighbors, but it is per National Grid the only viable option. Peter noted that he is the neighbor and his objections have not changed. He felt that this entire matter is premature as there are still pending decisions regarding potential problems that might eliminate the need for upgrade of service. Jean clarified about the objection noting her own understanding as to what is being proposed. Sandy felt the issue is the prematurity. If everything gets approved, then fine. But it seems premature to provide service when there are so many issues remaining outstanding. Nancy noted that National Grid is not involved at all in these other issues. She agreed to ask them if they would be able to wait on, but ultimately the Selectboard will need to make a decision. If the Selectboard doesn’t approve, it might still go through ultimately as a permanent blocking of this may not be allowable. Jean reminded that a property owner can have more capacity then they would need. So even if everything went south with their plans it likely would have no impact. This is really just an issue with electrical utility service. A trench would be filled in. In her mind, with respect to the concerns and needs of the neighbors, if the customer and the town in terms of the needs of the town as to the commons are met, she didn’t see how the town could say no. Peter affirmed that he would respect the decision of the Selectboard, but again asserted that all parties should be satisfied to the best extent possible. Nancy responded that National Grid did look at five different options.

Plowing on Private Roads

Wayne reported further on the roads. Part of the problem is all the rain we’ve been having which impacts the unpaved roads in towns. Hopefully there haven’t been too many washouts.

Town Hall Closure for Winter

Nancy asked the Selectboard about closing the Town Hall. Wayne expressed his favor in closing it. The building isn’t really usable in winter and isn’t big enough in its spaces for proper social distancing. Randy generally agreed. Jean asked about the potential for a public meeting in the event we cannot do it by Zoom. Randy responded the building doesn’t have enough space for an indoor meeting. It would be too limited on the square footage. Wayne concurred noting that nobody has signed up to use the building and it doesn’t appear that it could be used. Closing it for winter and winterizing would save money on heating fuel.

A motion as made by Wayne to close the Town Hall for the winter season. The motion was seconded by Randy and passed without objection.

Public Outreach Meeting Regarding Cannabis Retail Application

Ancient Growth held a meeting, but it was long enough ago that they will need to hold a new one. Nancy reported on the way they will hold the meeting. It will be done via Zoom and they will allow people to participate fully.

A motion was made by Jean to approve this outreach. The motion was seconded by Wayne and passed unanimously.

Hazardous Materials Grant Contract & HCA Certification Form

Nancy then provided the Selectboard with two documents that need to be signed off on. It was agreed to approve these documents and to sign them as quickly as possible.

Emerald Ash Borer

Jackson reported that he has communicated with the Tree Committee and has not had responses from the committee member designated to respond. Randy responded that this is a Tree Committee matter and the Selectboard really cannot comment any further. Wayne generally concurred noting that the Tree Committee has some funding and they should be keeping an eye on potentially dangerous trees. Nancy responded that Tree Committee is getting ready to proceed on a few fronts. To her knowledge they have communicated all the information they have to Jackson and don’t have anything else to add. They are otherwise monitoring things as required. Jackson reminded that a suggestion has been made to add a tab or page to the towns website on the Emerald Ash Borer. Nancy agreed to ask the Tree Committee to contact the towns webmaster on that.

Minutes

The Selectboard considered the minutes for November 2, 2020 and November 16, 2020. It was agreed to table the minutes from November 16 and to approve the minutes from November 2. Jean noted a minor matter concerning one sentence about the HCA. It was agreed to amend the minutes to reflect this change.

A motion was made by Jean to approve the minutes of November 2, 2020, as amended. The motion was seconded by Wayne and passed unanimously.

A motion to adjourn at 8:47 pm was made by Wayne. The motion was seconded by Jean and passed without objection.

Respectfully Submitted

Jakob K. Hamm, Selectboard Clerk