DALTON -- A 1 percent spending increase for fiscal 2015 got the green light at Annual Town Meeting, but a series of zoning restrictions failed to pass muster.

More than 100 residents attended the meeting at Wahconah Regional High School on Monday, approving a budget of $15,538,269 -- up $136,500 over last year's spending plan.

But voters were wary of proposed zoning changes, which called for restrictions on residential solar panels, drive-thrus -- and even chickens.

The proposed backyard chicken bylaw would have limited households to eight chickens while requiring that residents obtain a special permit from the Planning Board and set the animals 50 feet from any dwelling or adjacent property. Currently, there are no regulations to raising chickens.

Residents thought the measure was too restrictive, and a near-unanimous majority voted to table it.

"This is not an idle pastime; it concerns the wholly fundamental feeding of yourself and your family," said resident Jessie A. Robertson-Dubois.

Planning Board Chairman Richard A. Ladd said the proposal was drafted in response to ongoing complaints to the animal control officer.

"The Planning Board feels that taking the approach of reasonable regulations to allow for the keeping of poultry is better than having the animal control officer tell people to get rid of their poultry," Ladd said.

In tabling the item, residents asked that town counsel provide a legal opinion on how Dalton's present animal laws address the issue -- a question no one could answer Monday.

Another zoning article, regarding solar installations, was approved only in part. Residents agreed to new regulations on commercial installations, but a clear majority objected to controls in the bylaw that would have prohibited small scale, ground-mounted installations on lots under 20,000 square feet and restricted where on their homes residents could locate panels.

Residents objected to those controls, which they felt could inhibit new technologies that a fast-developing growing solar market may soon produce.

Also tabled was a zoning bylaw that would allow businesses to operate a drive-thru in the town -- none are presently allowed -- but only in commercial areas and not large swaths of Main Street.

Residents cited the need to increase tax revenue, and several pointed out that the bylaw would prohibit drive-thrus in the areas most likely to attract a chain restaurant.

"It's for the protection of the character of Dalton," Ladd protested after residents objected to the restrictions. "I don't think anyone wants to see a McDonald's or Burger King across the street from [Dalton Community Recreation Association] or the churches."

The Dalton Select Board earlier this year opposed the Planning Board's proposed drive-thru bylaw for the same reasons voters cited Monday.

In other business, residents adopted the Massachusetts' "stretch energy code," which requires all new buildings and modifications of existing structures comply with certain energy efficiency standards. The new standards could put Dalton well on its way toward acceptance into the state's Green Communities Act and enhanced grant opportunities.

Residents also empowered Selectmen to pursue agreements with developer Citizens Energy Corp., which seeks to locate two solar photovoltaic arrays in town. The arrays would be located at the former Dalton municipal landfill off Gulf Road and the former Warren Landfill on High Street. The company hopes to build the arrays, which could generate up to three megawatts of power, concurrenty.

Town Manager Kenneth E. Walto said if the project moves forward, Dalton will purchase around 800,000 kilowatts of power from the company at a discounted rate; the rest would go to the grid.

Voters narrowly approved the town's Central Berkshire Regional School District assessment of $7,482,329.

Finance Committee Chairman Henry H. Williams III said the body just about exhausted Dalton's free cash reserves of $584,606 to make the books right.

"We continue to be uneasy about the town's ability to regenerate these reserves for continuing operations in view of the present fiscal circumstances," Williams wrote in a report on the fiscal 2015 budget.

In the same report, Williams said Dalton's tax rate is likely to jump from $18.51 to between $19.25 and $19.50 in fiscal 2015.

To reach Phil Demers:
pdemers@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 281-2859.
On Twitter: @BE_PhilD