Editorial: Solar project clouds Hatfield neighborhood

Last modified: Monday, April 15, 2013

Many Hatfield residents aren’t feeling very sunny these days about a large-scale solar installation in the middle of their neighborhood. Nor should they be. Instead of farmland, they’ll get a much different view of renewable energy’s benefits. Some 8,276 photovoltaic panels are slated for installation in a residential area near the town’s center off Chestnut Street. Those panels will power the 2.4-megawatt plant.

The 35-acre solar farm passed a key hurdle last week when the Zoning Board of Appeals ruled Building Inspector Stanley Sadowski properly granted a permit.

The developer, Hatfield Solar LLC, a part of Boston’s Citizens Enterprises Corp., anticipates it will have the $1.7 million project operational by year’s end. This isn’t typical not-in-my-backyard drum-beating taking place in Hatfield. In fact, most residents rallying against the project have said repeatedly, and convincingly, that they support solar power and would welcome this venture in a more appropriately zoned industrial area of town.

They have legitimate concerns: property values will likely take a hit, farmland will be affected and the project may look out of place in a residential neighborhood.

There’s no doubt Massachusetts set the bar high when it comes to renewable energy: 250 megawatts of installed solar power by 2017. That’s a noble goal and one we support. The solar pitch is alluring. A project like the one proposed in Hatfield will produce enough electricity to power hundreds of homes, a renewable energy that’s good for the environment, expands the town’s tax base and provides a clean source of power.

It’s hard to argue with that. But in the furor over building solar installations quickly, a startling thing is happening in communities across the state. In addition to constructing solar panels atop landfills, buildings and other out-of-the-way sites, developers are frequently turning to residential neighborhoods.

Developers seem to have state law on their side. Those laws say that no local zoning ordinance or bylaw can prohibit or unreasonably regulate solar installations unless it is to protect the public health, safety and welfare. This was the basis for the building inspector’s decision to grant a permit in Hatfield.

Hatfield does not have a detailed bylaw regulating solar arrays, but town rules do refer to “renewable or alternative energy development facilities,” and states that they are only allowed in industrial and light industrial use districts.

This definition became a bone of contention between developers and neighborhood opponents who argued before the ZBA in recent months. It’s hard to imagine state legislators were seeking to force communities to accept large-scale solar projects in denser neighborhoods when they wrote the law.

We hope town leaders will attempt to beef up the bylaw with rules that spell out placement, setback and screening requirements of solar projects. Such a bylaw should also seek to better define what qualifies as an energy manufacturing plant, another point of disagreement over whether the Chestnut Street site is suitable for a solar project.

Citizens Enterprises is doing great things in the solar arena and is helping the state meet its commitment to increase its renewable energy portfolio with projects in many communities — including three in western Massachusetts.

We’ve supported renewable energy in this space over the years, and we’ll continue to encourage more of it as solar power becomes more prevalent.

But homeowners should not be lost in the quest to go solar. After all, it could be your backyard next.


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