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Plainfield voters reject solar bylaw

— With 17 voting for and 21 against, residents at Saturday’s special Town Meeting soundly rejected a proposed new solar photovoltaic bylaw, nixing the town’s chances, for now, at qualifying for state Green Community status.

The bylaw would have provided for the “as of right” use of land for the generation of solar energy and enabled the installation of large-scale solar arrays to proceed without requiring a special permit.

A two-thirds majority was required for passage of the bylaw.

“I think what it boiled down to was people who were concerned about clean energy and global warming vs. the ‘not-in-my-backyard’ folks,” said Tim Walter, an Energy Committee member and a bylaw proponent.

The town had originally scheduled a vote on the bylaw at its annual Town Meeting in May, but the issue was tabled to bring more information to residents.

“Plainfield is a bucolic rural community with just over 600 people. I think people just didn’t want to see a large-scale array in the landscape,” Walter said. “I think another thing that hurt it was that there were fewer people at the special Town Meeting than there were at the Town Meeting in May.”

Passing the bylaw would have been one of two required steps in order for the town to qualify to become a Green Community. The other bylaw is a “stretch code” which requires that new residential, commercial and municipal construction be 20 percent more energy efficient than the current state building code.

The state’s Green Communities Designation and Grant Program works with municipalities toward qualification as a Green Community and provides funding to qualified municipalities for energy efficiency and renewable energy initiatives.

Earning a Green Community designation could help reduce the town’s expenses on energy, while at the same time making it eligible for grants from a $10 million account established by the state, supporters say.

“Plainfield would have gotten $136,500 in state funds if this passed, but some people said that wasn’t very much money,” Walter said. “That money would have been earmarked for energy conservation, and becoming a Green Community would have made the town eligible for further grants.”

Select Board member Judith Feeley said many residents thought the town already had a good bylaw for addressing the installation of a large-scale solar array.

“We do have a very good bylaw dealing with site plan reviews and I think quite a few people thought that we were already covered,” Feeley said, adding that rejection of the bylaw is not a rejection of alternative energy.

“This doesn’t stop solar development in town, we just thought a new bylaw was unnecessary,” she said.

“This is a small village that has only one zone for the entire town and that is for rural residential and agricultural,” 30-year-resident Edward Kohn said. “We are deeply engaged with the land and that is reflected quite clearly in our town bylaws,” he said.

As for acquiring “Green Community” standing, Kohn said that Plainfield is an environmentally conscious community.

“My perspective on the Green Community designation is that we are a green community already, just not technically in the eyes of the state. We have a keen interest in the land and a responsibility to how we care for it, and we will continue to do so,” Kohn said.

When asked if the Energy Committee would revisit the possibility of passing a similar bylaw that addresses renewable and or alternative energy, Walter he said was not sure what the future held.

“It is my understanding that we cannot apply again for another two years, Walter said. “Though I am not sure that the Planning Board and the Energy Committee will have enough energy to do this again.”

To date, 103 municipalities in the state have passed such measures and have been designated as Green Communities. Thirty-five of those municipalities are in western Massachusetts, including Amherst, Ashfield, Buckland, Chesterfield, Deerfield, Easthampton, Hatfield, Northampton, Montague, Pelham and Shutesbury.

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