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As solar arrays spread, towns seek zoning to light the way

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  • Massachusetts was named the top state in the nation for energy efficiency by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a designation that takes into account clean-energy programs and installations like this one being built on Christian Lane in Whately.<br/>Carol Lollis<br/>

    Massachusetts was named the top state in the nation for energy efficiency by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a designation that takes into account clean-energy programs and installations like this one being built on Christian Lane in Whately.
    Carol Lollis
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Even as solar arrays are being constructed like this one on Christian Lane in Whately, townspeople are trying to develop zoning to guide where they go and what they look like.<br/>Carol Lollis

    Even as solar arrays are being constructed like this one on Christian Lane in Whately, townspeople are trying to develop zoning to guide where they go and what they look like.
    Carol Lollis Purchase photo reprints »

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO<br/>Solar panel installation

    GAZETTE FILE PHOTO
    Solar panel installation Purchase photo reprints »

  • In western Massachusetts, with its vast tracts of open land, solar is the dominant renewable energy source and one that is seen as vital to the region’s clean energy future. In Hampshire and Franklin counties, there are about a dozen large-scale, ground-mounted solar arrays up and running, planned or proposed. This one under construction is on Christian Lane in Whately.<br/>Carol Lollis

    In western Massachusetts, with its vast tracts of open land, solar is the dominant renewable energy source and one that is seen as vital to the region’s clean energy future. In Hampshire and Franklin counties, there are about a dozen large-scale, ground-mounted solar arrays up and running, planned or proposed. This one under construction is on Christian Lane in Whately.
    Carol Lollis Purchase photo reprints »

  • In western Massachusetts, with its vast tracts of open land, solar is the dominant renewable energy source and one that is seen as vital to the region’s clean energy future. In Hampshire and Franklin counties, there are about a dozen large-scale, ground-mounted solar arrays up and running, planned or proposed. This one under construction is on Christian Lane in Whately.<br/>Carol Lollis

    In western Massachusetts, with its vast tracts of open land, solar is the dominant renewable energy source and one that is seen as vital to the region’s clean energy future. In Hampshire and Franklin counties, there are about a dozen large-scale, ground-mounted solar arrays up and running, planned or proposed. This one under construction is on Christian Lane in Whately.
    Carol Lollis Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kevin Gentile with Collins Electric out of Chicopee working on a solar project in Whately off Christian Ln.<br/><br/>

    Kevin Gentile with Collins Electric out of Chicopee working on a solar project in Whately off Christian Ln.

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  • left, Jake McGrath and James Grummell , employees of  Collins Electric out of Chicopee working on a solar project in Whately off Christian Ln.<br/><br/><br/><br/><br/>

    left, Jake McGrath and James Grummell , employees of Collins Electric out of Chicopee working on a solar project in Whately off Christian Ln.




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


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


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


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



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  • Jake McGrath, an employee of  Collins Electric  of Chicopee, works on a solar project off Christian Lane in Whately last month.

    Jake McGrath, an employee of Collins Electric of Chicopee, works on a solar project off Christian Lane in Whately last month. Purchase photo reprints »

  • facing, Jake McGrath and  James Grummell , employees of  Collins Electric out of Chicopee working on a solar project in Whately off Christian Ln.<br/><br/><br/><br/><br/>

    facing, Jake McGrath and James Grummell , employees of Collins Electric out of Chicopee working on a solar project in Whately off Christian Ln.




    Purchase photo reprints »

  • <br/>  James Grummell ,  and Jake McGrath, employees of  Collins Electric out of Chicopee working on a solar project in Whately off Christian Ln.<br/><br/><br/><br/><br/><br/>


    James Grummell , and Jake McGrath, employees of Collins Electric out of Chicopee working on a solar project in Whately off Christian Ln.





    Purchase photo reprints »

  • <br/><br/>
  • <br/><br/>
  • Massachusetts was named the top state in the nation for energy efficiency by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a designation that takes into account clean-energy programs and installations like this one being built on Christian Lane in Whately.<br/>Carol Lollis<br/>
  • Even as solar arrays are being constructed like this one on Christian Lane in Whately, townspeople are trying to develop zoning to guide where they go and what they look like.<br/>Carol Lollis
  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO<br/>Solar panel installation
  • In western Massachusetts, with its vast tracts of open land, solar is the dominant renewable energy source and one that is seen as vital to the region’s clean energy future. In Hampshire and Franklin counties, there are about a dozen large-scale, ground-mounted solar arrays up and running, planned or proposed. This one under construction is on Christian Lane in Whately.<br/>Carol Lollis
  • In western Massachusetts, with its vast tracts of open land, solar is the dominant renewable energy source and one that is seen as vital to the region’s clean energy future. In Hampshire and Franklin counties, there are about a dozen large-scale, ground-mounted solar arrays up and running, planned or proposed. This one under construction is on Christian Lane in Whately.<br/>Carol Lollis
  • Kevin Gentile with Collins Electric out of Chicopee working on a solar project in Whately off Christian Ln.<br/><br/>
  • left, Jake McGrath and James Grummell , employees of  Collins Electric out of Chicopee working on a solar project in Whately off Christian Ln.<br/><br/><br/><br/><br/>
  • <br/>Solar project being constructed by Collins Electric out of Chicopee working on a solar project in Whately off Christian Ln.<br/><br/><br/>
  • <br/>Solar project being constructed by Collins Electric out of Chicopee working on a solar project in Whately off Christian Ln.<br/><br/><br/><br/>
  • Jake McGrath, an employee of  Collins Electric  of Chicopee, works on a solar project off Christian Lane in Whately last month.
  • facing, Jake McGrath and  James Grummell , employees of  Collins Electric out of Chicopee working on a solar project in Whately off Christian Ln.<br/><br/><br/><br/><br/>
  • <br/>  James Grummell ,  and Jake McGrath, employees of  Collins Electric out of Chicopee working on a solar project in Whately off Christian Ln.<br/><br/><br/><br/><br/><br/>

For years, the state has encouraged communities across the commonwealth to develop alternative energy sources like solar with incentives and grants.

Now, as solar arrays become more commonplace under a less-than-clear state law that fast-tracks and champions them, local officials are trying to take some control back. They say their aim is not to prevent such projects, but rather to create their own rules to exert influence over where these multi-acre facilities go and what they look like.

In Southampton, officials have begun developing a local solar zoning bylaw as a number of smaller-scale solar projects have emerged.

Southampton Zoning Enforcement Officer Richard Oleksak believes such bylaws are necessary.

“The local zoning can be stricter than the state,” he said. “It gives the towns an opportunity to be tougher than the state law if they want to.”

Wayne Feiden, Northampton’s city planner, offers a similar perspective.

“Some things aren’t as clear as we’d like and that’s why a lot of communities spell this out,” Feiden said. Northampton put solar installation ordinances on the books in recent years, regulations that are likely to evolve as the types of solar projects change. The city’s new solar energy zoning allows for large-scale, ground-mounted projects at the landfill off Glendale Road and at Northampton Airport in the Meadows.

“We’re playing catch-up right now,” Feiden said of the city’s solar zoning. “The bottom line is, we can regulate, but we can’t deny. ... We want to lower the bar for applicants, but not have neighbors be worried. And what’s the fine line there?”

Tensions arise

Massachusetts was named the top state in the nation for energy efficiency by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a designation that takes into account clean-energy programs and installations. But in the trenches, people are still figuring out how to build and live with new sources of energy and the fast-changing technologies that come with them.


View Solar arrays in Hampshire and Franklin counties in a larger map

In western Massachusetts, with its vast tracts of open land, solar is the dominant renewable energy source and one that is seen as vital to the region’s clean energy future. In Hampshire and Franklin counties, there are about a dozen large-scale, ground-mounted solar arrays up and running, planned or proposed.

As both small and large-scale photovoltaic arrays proliferate in the Valley, issues of control over design and location have arisen, causing tension between communities and developers.

Local officials and many area residents say they embrace solar as a good alternative to fossil fuels and don’t want to impede its growth, but they also don’t want solar arrays being built just anywhere.

“It’s great to support alternative energies, which I do and I think there’s big support for it in our town, but the fact is, they’re not attractive,” said Jeff McQueen chair of the Leverett Planning Board, which helped establish a solar array bylaw last year.

“The idea of zoning is that it protects you,” McQueen said. “If you buy a house next to a gas station in a commercial district, well, you know you live next to a gas station. But if you buy in an agricultural, residential area, there is an implicit promise by the town to protect your environment.”

Through the state’s 2008 Green Communities Act, which provides incentives to municipalities that foster renewable energy growth, cities and towns are encouraged to write bylaws that designate zones or parcels that are “as-of-right” or pre-approved for solar. The bylaws also guide large-scale solar array development to fit into the local landscape by, in addition to addressing zoning, establishing vegetation coverage to obscure the array from view, decommissioning and maintenance.

State law is murky as to what restrictions communities can put on large-scale, ground-mounted solar arrays, which the state defines as being able to produce at least 250 kilowatts per year on an acre or more.

The question is, will local bylaws hold up in court?

“Some of the bylaws go further than what state law allows you to do. Some towns are being restrictive to the point where it’s illegal to do so,” said Michael Seward, a local Realtor with Sawicki Real Estate. “Everyone wants solar, but not in their backyard and, to a certain extent, that’s understandable.”

Ready or not

And some bylaws may not go far enough.

Hatfield, for example, has a solar array bylaw, but some residents say it’s inadequate. In October, several residents filed a lawsuit in Land Court seeking to delay development of a 2.3-megawatt solar array off Chestnut Street.

Stanley Pitchko, a plaintiff in the suit who says he is in favor of solar power, told the Gazette that the town’s bylaws do not regulate the placement or maintenance of a solar facility. The idea behind filing the suit, he said was to prevent the building of a solar array before the town is able to create bylaws that address those issues as well as the decommissioning of a solar facility.

Rural towns including Williamsburg, Cummington, Worthington and Southampton do not have solar array bylaws, though Williamsburg and Southampton are drafting regulations. Huntington has a bylaw, but it’s still being reviewed by the attorney general, a necessary step for ratification of any municipal bylaw.

In Huntington, Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Linda Hamlin said residents concerned that solar arrays could go anywhere in town appealed to officials to develop a solar array bylaw this year.

Government incentives or concern about development haven’t encouraged Worthington to draft a regulation, however. The town has seen carefully crafted laws be ignored.

“We created a specific cell tower bylaw and they built two cell towers anyway,” said Joe Best, chairman of the Worthington Planning Board. “If there’s an overarching state or federal policy, that can totally take precedent.

“You never know how a bylaw is actually going to work in practice until you try to apply it to a new situation,” he said.

Others say a well-written bylaw or ordinance can carry weight.

“Zoning is tailored to the character of a municipality,” said Timothy Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission in Springfield, which assists with such work. “How you use land and at what density do you use it. Once you get to a certain scale, the level of scrutiny increases and (projects) get much more attention.”

Model bylaw

Much like the federal cell phone tower laws, Massachusetts solar array laws allow for few restrictions on construction.

Under state law, communities can’t pass a law that would prohibit or “unreasonably” regulate the installation of solar facilities, except to protect the public’s health, safety or welfare. But in its model bylaw for municipalities, the state Department of Energy Resources acknowledges that it’s not clear whether this legislation applies to large-scale, ground-mounted systems. Towns are being advised by the state Department of Energy Resources to create local bylaws in case it turns out the state law does not apply.

“We haven’t had any challenges in court,” said Emalie Gainey, deputy press secretary for the state attorney general’s office, “but we have received letters from lawyers.”

When a town approves any bylaw, it goes to the attorney general for review and approval. During these reviews, the attorney general accepts feedback, usually from opponents of the law.

In May, for example, a lawyer for a solar developer seeking to build in Dartmouth asked the attorney general to reject a portion of the town’s bylaw that would bar large-scale solar arrays from being built in residential areas. In June, an attorney representing a developer seeking to build a 6-megawatt solar array in Lunenberg challenged the town’s restriction for such projects to specific “overlay” areas. In both cases, the attorney general upheld the town’s bylaws. A judge could disagree with the attorney general’s decision if it were brought to court, however.

Projects proliferate

Meantime, applications for new solar installations keep pouring in.

Solar array bylaws are intended to fast-track photovoltaic energy production and help Massachusetts meet the goal of installing 250 megawatts of solar power by 2017.

“We are more than halfway to meeting the governor’s goal of installing 250 megawatts by 2017, with five years left to hit the target,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Richard Sullivan in August. His comments came as the state broke ground on a 70-kilowatt solar array installation outside the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s offices on Routes 5 and 10 in Hatfield. He noted at the time that 339 of 351 towns now have at least one state-supported solar electricity project.

The bar was set by Gov. Deval Patrick in 2008 when he signed the Green Communities, Green Jobs and the Global Warming Solutions acts.

The bylaws allow “as-of-right” development of solar facilities, meaning a developer can choose property that is pre-approved, often sidestepping the special permitting process. Site plan review may still be required, however.

Solar energy bylaws typically include where the facilities can be located and address issues like setbacks, height, glare, monitoring and the eventual decommissioning.

One of the most common concerns towns have when a solar array is proposed is how is it going to affect the aesthetics of the neighborhood. An extensive solar installation bylaw enacted in Sunderland in April, for example, seeks to minimize impacts on environmental, scenic, natural and historic resources.

“Usually, the main issue that comes up in communities we have been working with is the visual impact,” said David Elvin, senior planner for land use and zoning at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. The PVPC has been helping area communities connect with state and federal solar benefits, developers and drafting bylaws.

Elvin said many bylaws have coverage clauses that require arrays to be surrounded by vegetation, fences or some other shield.

Other towns have raised concerns that solar arrays are noisy and may produce harmful electric or magnetic fields (EMFs). Municipal planning and utility officials say those complaints are not valid. Solar arrays do produce EMFs, but at a negligible level, according to the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection.

“It may hum a little bit, but basically, it’s like living next to a graveyard,” said Bill Collingsworth, director of public utilities in Pittsfield, where there are several major solar fields.

A bylaw’s power

Without a solar array bylaw, a developer can come into town, find land, apply for a building permit and install solar panels. The same is true for residential and commercial property owners.

There may be some site plan review with the planning board or similar city entity, but once the permit is granted there’s little residents can do to alter or stop the plan.

As in Hatfield, applicants have sought building permits for solar installations in the absence of local bylaws. Earlier this year in Southampton, Oleksak, also the town’s building commissioner, denied a building permit for a ground and pole-mounted solar installation at 9 Donna Marie Way, because abutters had not had a chance to voice concerns over the 70-feet-long, 14-feet-high installation, which is in public view.

One neighbor raised questions about aesthetics, and the fact that the owner would eventually be paid by an electric company for the power produced by the facility, thereby making it a business operating in a rural residential zone.

The Zoning Board of Appeals unanimously overturned Oleksak’s denial of a building permit in large part, because there were no local bylaws in place to prevent the project, according to minutes of the ZBA’s May 23, 2012 meeting.

Later this month, the ZBA will hold a hearing on a residential solar project on Line Street in which the applicant plans to build a facility in a front yard and also use it as a car port, according to Oleksak, who denied a building permit for that project as well.

“I feel it’s offensive to the neighbors,” Oleksak said. “It’s in the guy’s front yard.”

Oleksak said the ZBA hearing will at least give abutters an opportunity to learn more about the project and express concerns.

“I don’t have a problem if they want to put it on their houses, but if it’s in their yards, that could be offensive,” he said.

And not every town official thinks a bylaw is necessary. For Mike Holden, chairman of Cummington’s Zoning Board of Appeals, writing a bylaw that could get trumped by state law would be a waste of time.

“The zoning act in Massachusetts state law says there really can’t be a prohibition on solar collection. I think that’s pretty non-restrictive,” he said. “I’m not opposed or in favor of solar to any great degree, but to me, unless as a culture we stop using energy, we’re going to have to create it somehow, somewhere and solar energy is certainly a pretty benign way of doing it.”

Related

Area solar projects

Monday, November 19, 2012

Encouraged by federal and state tax breaks and subsidies, large-scale, ground-mounted solar arrays have been springing up in Hampshire and Franklin counties since 2010. Below is a list of local projects that have been completed, have been approved or are under construction or have been proposed. Operating ■ State Road, Whately: Boston-based Citizens Energy, Corp., built a 1.5-megawatt solar array … 0

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