Town moderator Michael Fee confers with Town Counsel Chris Heep and Planning Board chair Adam Block about presentation by Planning Board member Artie Crocker (at podium)/ Credit: Needham Observer

The town may be on a path to becoming a more thoroughly regulated community when it comes to solar energy systems, but a potential conflict of interest issue looms over the zoning article that passed Town Meeting Wednesday by a comfortable voice vote majority.

The possible conflict lies with Planning Board member Artie Crocker. He is employed as a sales engineer for NEC Solar, which installs both commercial and residential solar energy systems in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The Planning Board dedicated time at multiple meetings over the past several months to developing the extensive set of mostly new regulations contained in this year’s Article 20. Titled “Amend Zoning By-Law – Solar Energy Systems,” its intent, described in the Town Meeting warrant, is to create “a defined set of zoning and permitting regulations applicable to various types of Solar Energy Systems.”

In addition, the warrant read, “The Planning Board offers this amendment with the intent of facilitating installation of Solar Energy Systems, for those community members who wish to do so.”

The Planning Board presented the article when it came up for consideration at Town Meeting, with Crocker giving the presentation, as he had taken a lead role in much of the discussion on the regulations. Based on guidance that evolved from recent Planning Board meetings, Crocker opened the presentation with what was intended to be a disclosure of his participation in the industry subject to the new zoning regulations.

“I’m a member of the Planning Board but I’m also a professional,” he began. “My profession is as an engineer in the solar industry.” 

That declaration caught the attention of Town Clerk Louise Miller. “So, Artie got up and started his presentation, and I was like, whoa,” Miller said Thursday afternoon. “And (Town Moderator) Michael Fee was kind of taken aback.

“He (Fee) then came over to me and asked, ‘Does he have a conflict of interest?’ And I said, ‘I think he does.’” 

As town clerk, a position she has held for less than a month, Miller said she maintains records of all town personnel — appointed and elected officials as well as employees — who have documented conflict concerns. She had no such record for Crocker.

Fee returned to his podium but soon became concerned about what he was hearing.

“Michael just kind of let it go for a little bit to see what the presentation was going to be,” said Miller. “And then it became very clear that this article is enabling solar that cannot be done today.”

That triggered confabs among Miller, Fee, Town Counsel Chris Heep and Planning Board Chair Adam Block, who huddled on the Powers Hall stage as Crocker continued with the presentation.

After roughly seven minutes, Fee interrupted Crocker and called for a brief recess. When the meeting was called back into session, Block replaced Crocker to complete the presentation. 

“The moderator basically made a decision right then and there to have Artie not continue the presentation and have Adam Block continue it,” said Miller.

After the conclusion of Wednesday’s Town Meeting session, Crocker seemed nonplussed by the unprecedented — at least in this century — action. Fee, who has been town moderator since 1997, said he had no memory of ever having to give the hook to a proponent in the midst of a presentation.

“I can partially understand why it might have been better with someone else presenting it, except for I’m the expert of knowing how to answer the questions,” said Crocker, who said he sought guidance from Town Counsel Heep.

“So before the Planning Board even started debating the article about the solar article, the town counsel and I went through all the ethics conflicts,” Crocker said. “And I wrote something as far as what I would never do in the town related to projects coming before the Planning Board, that I would never work on them as far as any project coming to town related to solar.

“The interesting thing is, though, we are actually putting more restrictions on what is already going on in town,” he said of the substance of the zoning article. “So we actually made it more restrictive. I voted to make it more restrictive than what’s actually occurring in town now.”

The language of the article takes up 12 pages in the Town Meeting warrant. It covers a range of solar energy systems, both residential and commercial. NEC Solar is a significant presence in Needham and would operate under the new regulations.

Miller either participated in or overheard some of the conservations that occurred before Fee made his decision to switch presenters. She said she heard town counsel acknowledge that he had advised Crocker on the issue. “He did not think it would be an issue. I do recall him saying that.”

The Observer was not able to reach Heep for comment.

Miller said the potential conflict could have implications not just for Crocker, but for the article itself.

“My secondary concern, which may be what Michael Fee was referring to, is if there is a conflict of interest and someone complains to the Ethics Commission, they have the power to invalidate all of the actions that were taken,” said Miller. “They have the power to invalidate the actions of the Planning Board.”

The Planning Board had discussed its presenter assignments at its April 24 meeting, but Crocker was absent from that meeting. As chair, Block initiated the discussion and initially suggested assigning the solar article to himself, saying he had already prepared a PowerPoint deck.

Lee Newman, the town’s director of planning and community development, then asked, “Were you able to talk with Artie, because I know he expressed interest in the solar? So I want to make sure the loop is closed with him.”

Planning Board members Natasha Espada and Paul Alpert both endorsed the idea of Crocker making the presentation, to which Block asked, “Do you see any issue whether Artie should affirmatively disclose that he earns a living by solar and would potentially benefit by these regulations? Is that an issue?”

“I don’t know that he would necessarily benefit by these regulations,” Alpert said. “I think his business should really be about the same because right now there are no regulations, right?”

Member Justin McCullen, in his first Planning Board meeting after being elected on April 9, said, “The other solution is, if he does it, in the beginning we’ll disclose, because it’s a perceived conflict.”

When the article was opened for discussion at the conclusion of Block’s presentation, multiple Town Meeting members expressed concerns about ground-mounted solar systems being allowed in the front yards of residential homes. Their industrial appearance, many said, would be visually jarring in residential neighborhoods, especially in Single Residence B with its small lots and tight clusters of homes.

Few members had issues with allowing solar canopies in commercial areas or parking lots, including publicly owned lots. Town officials and others, including Crocker, said there was an extremely low likelihood of many — or perhaps even any — ground-mounted systems being installed on small lots.

“From a residential standpoint, this does nothing to add to the residential possibility of solar,” he said. “All this really did was clarify the fact that solar canopies should be allowed on parking lots, which some people in town have been trying to do for a while.”

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