Large-scale solar pause gives some Amherst councilors pause

  • View of an approximately 30-acre solar farm north of Pulpit Hill Road in Amherst on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/9/2022 8:10:36 PM
Modified: 2/9/2022 8:08:55 PM

AMHERST — Four tracts of land on which large-scale solar projects could be developed would not be affected by a proposed 18-month moratorium being considered by the Town Council, following the recent filing of preliminary subdivision plans.

As the Town Council continues to debate implementing a moratorium, with a vote anticipated at its Feb. 28 meeting, councilors were informed during Monday’s first reading on the bylaw that landowner W.D. Cowls Inc. had filed the preliminary subdivision plans, insulating the four tracts from any changes to zoning laws.

The moratorium, which advocates say would give time for town planners to craft a town solar bylaw to guide projects, revise existing rules and complete various studies on the use of photovoltaics, came in response to a proposal last year from Cowls for constructing 41 acres of solar arrays in woods off Shutesbury Road. That proposed project has since been withdrawn.

The landowner filings to grandfather existing zoning is prompting At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke to say she is leaning toward voting against the moratorium. Because it is zoning, the moratorium needs a two-thirds council vote in support — or yes votes from nine of the 13 councilors — to go into effect.

With about 5,500 acres of working forestland protected in the region, Cowls President Cinda Jones has indicated in the past that she intends to turn about 300 of these acres into solar farms.

Hanneke said she is also concerned that a favorable vote would leave the perception that Amherst is telling the region and the state that a progressive town doesn’t believe in the benefits of solar energy.

“That’s not the message I want to send to the world when we’ve adopted aggressive climate goals,” Hanneke said.

District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne said the urgency of climate change and the crisis the world is facing dictates that the town not stand in the way of solar energy. Bahl-Milne said the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals can both already review projects, and she cited statistics that solar could counteract more greenhouse gas emissions than woodlands do.

District 5 Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier, who is sponsoring the moratorium with Council President Lynn Griesemer and fellow District 2 Councilor Pat De Angelis, said the pause is needed so that Amherst can do better with solar energy and become a leader in the region.

“This moratorium is to do it right and to do it better,” District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said.

“Let’s get it right the first time and not have to come back to it again and to have to mitigate something more serious,” added At-Large Councilor Ellisha Walker.

District 3 Councilor Jennifer Taub said many people in the green-energy field view the moratorium as a responsible measure.

The Planning Board, though, is advising the Town Council against adopting the bylaw by a 5-2 vote.

“The proposed solar moratorium will slow down the town’s response to the climate crisis by slowing the town’s progress on meeting its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050,” its report states.

Its members noted that the town has permitted five projects, three of which have been built, at Hampshire College and on Montague and Pulpit Hill roads, one that is under construction at the capped landfill on Belchertown Road, and one that is planned at the former Hickory Ridge Golf Course, and that the town has good oversight and has avoided any environmental harm.

Like at other meetings, most of those who commented publicly endorsed the moratorium.

Kathleen Bridgewater of Shutesbury Road said it would give the town time to prepare standards and regulations.

“It really would allow Amherst to gather facts and experts that we need to set up a process that works for Amherst,” said Ira Addes, also of Shutesbury Road.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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