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Hatfield’s solar bylaw headed to Town Meeting

HATFIELD — At this year’s annual Town Meeting in May, residents vote on a proposed solar-energy zoning bylaw that sets forth criteria for site plan review and approval of solar installations.

Developed by the Hatfield Energy Committee, the proposal, which received a thumbs up from the Planning Board at its meeting Wednesday, addresses issues such as the presence of hazardous materials, documentation of projected noise levels, lighting, the control of vegetation and system removal requirements. The bylaw would also require blueprints to be signed by a professional engineer who is licensed in Massachusetts.

While some residents said the bylaw doesn’t go far enough to regulate solar installations, Selectman Edward Lesko maintains it is a necessary step.

“It is important to me that the bylaw gets passed so we can at least have some sort of structure to protect residents,” Lesko said. “If you don’t like it as it is, then offer an amendment at Town Meeting, but don’t do away with it completely.”

At Wednesday’s Planning Board meeting, the Energy Committee initially proposed a bylaw that called for site plan approval only for medium- and large-scale ground-mounted solar-generating systems. Single residential roof- or ground-mounted systems and “cooperative installations” would not have required site plan approval.

Under a cooperative installation, a number of neighbors would be able to share the costs and benefits from a solar installation located on one residential property. This would allow residents whose property is not conducive to installing solar panels to tap into the power produced by a neighbor whose property can support a solar installation.

Several residents at the meeting expressed concern that such a cooperative venture could have the potential to become a large project.

“I think that because this could be a substantial project depending on how many neighbors participate and how large the installation is, it seems only reasonable and fair to have the same type of scrutiny as a medium ground-mounted project,” Bridge Street resident Daniel Edwards said.

After continued discussion, the Planning Board opted to have the bylaw require site plan approval for cooperative installations as well.

Development of the bylaw was prompted after a building permit had been issued last fall to the Boston-based Citizens Energy Corporation (CEC) for a $1.7 million, 2-megawatt solar installation on 18 acres of land at 45 Chestnut St. owned by Szawloski Realty Inc.

The plan had originally been submitted to the Planning Board for approval. However, when that board tabled the issue twice, Citizens Energy withdrew the plans, submitting them instead to the building inspector, who promptly issued a building permit.

Several residents who opposed locating a large-scale solar installation in a residential area appealed the issuance of the building permit to the Zoning Board of Appeals. The board unanimously ruled Feb. 20 that the permit issued by Hatfield building inspector Stanley Sadowski was properly granted.

As the town did not have a specific solar bylaw, the Planning Board urged townspeople to work together with the Hatfield Energy Committee with an eye toward establishing a bylaw that would give the town more control over the scope and location of future solar installations.

While some residents said they supported the amended bylaw, others remained unsatisfied.

“I think this meeting went very well. This is the first opportunity that we had to have a solid rational discussion where we felt heard and acknowledged,” Stanley Pitchko, of Prospect Street, said. “Now we have to take the next step and get it approved at Town Meeting,” he said.

As written, the bylaw does not ban solar installations in residential areas, something some residents say they would like to see.

“I have mixed feelings about this,” Susan Moorman, a resident of Bridge Street, said. “I guess it is an improvement, but it also feels like being happy about receiving the crumbs.”

The annual Town Meeting will be held on May 14 at Smith Academy 7 p.m.

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