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Editorial: Solar zoning needs work

Solar project being constructed by Collins Electric out of Chicopee working on a solar project in Whately off Christian Ln.

Solar project being constructed by Collins Electric out of Chicopee working on a solar project in Whately off Christian Ln. Purchase photo reprints »

As the state fast tracks the development of solar-panel arrays across the commonwealth, area residents will be seeing more and more of these shiny installations — across fields, atop buildings and over former landfills.

The push for this clean energy source has already spawned a proliferation of several large-scale solar arrays in the Valley, projects that are providing municipalities and commercial enterprises with a new source of revenue while reducing costs and carbon footprints.

The increase in these projects is buoyed with financial incentives and driven by the state’s goal of being able to produce 250 megawatts of solar power per year by 2017. As Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Richard Sullivan put it in August, the state is already halfway to meeting that goal set by Gov. Deval Patrick. At the time, he noted that all but 12 of the commonwealth’s 351 cities and towns have at least one state-supported solar electricity project.

But there is another side to this march of environmental progress, otherwise known as the Green Communities, Green Jobs and the Global Warming Solutions acts, which the governor signed into law in 2008. As the Gazette reported last weekend, many cities and towns, particularly small rural communities with tracts of open spaces, remain vulnerable to the development of sizeable solar energy installations in undesirable locations because they have not yet put on the books a local ordinance or bylaw that helps guide where these projects can go, and addresses assorted aesthetic questions.

Without bylaws on the books, public vetting of projects can be shortchanged, or in some cases, eliminated. This can mean the voices of residents who live near such facilities go unheard.

A scenario like this recently played out in Hatfield, where a Boston-based company submitted plans to install a 2.4-megawatt, or 8,276-solar-panel array in a residential zone off Chestnut Street. Within a week, Citizens Enterprises Inc. applied for and received a building permit from the town. The apparent fast-tracking of this project provoked a complaint in Land Court, in which about 20 residents have sued the town and property owner whose land is slated for the installation. These residents want time to create a local bylaw that would help guide the development of solar projects.

Representatives for Citizens Enterprises point to a state law, which they say gives them authority to build a large-scale solar facility at the Hatfield site. That law states that communities can’t pass local measures that would prohibit or “unreasonably” regulate the installation of solar facilities, except to protect the public’s health, safety and welfare.

Herein lies the problem. As a way to encourage municipalities to go green, the state has provided cities and towns with a model “as-of-right” zoning bylaw that allows use of large-scale, ground-mounted solar photovoltaic installations. Its purpose is to promote these photovoltaic installations by providing standards for their placement, design, construction, operation, modification, monitoring and removal. The model zoning is intended to minimize impacts on scenic, natural and historic resources and to provide financial assurances for the decommissioning of such installations.

Sounds great, except that in its educational materials to cities and towns, the state acknowledges one big flaw: It’s not clear whether the state law applies to the construction of large-scale, ground-mounted solar energy systems, which Massachusetts defines as projects capable of producing 250 kilowatts of power.

The law is open to interpretation, and in some cases decisions on where large-scale solar installations go end up on the desks of a local building inspector who can decide, singularly and out of public view, whether to allow the development of a large-scale, multi-million dollar solar facility.

In our opinion, this system is less than transparent. The state’s zoning law needs to have a great deal more clarity if communities, not merely local officials, are going to fully embrace solar energy. Only then will neighbors who live with this infrastructure and fast-changing technology feel like they are part of the solution to fostering and producing clean energy and not a pawn in its development.

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