Attorney General approves 1-year solar moratorium

  • The Board of Planning and Community Development and residents met Wednesday to continue to review and discuss zoning bylaw amendments and provisions regarding ground-mounted solar photovoltaic installations. Pictured in the foreground, left to right, Thomas Russo and Lee Gersch. In the back, left to right, Lori Kay, William Hogan, Town Planner Eric Smith, and board members Kathryn Norton, Duane Truehart, Marc Morgan and Chair David Small. —Athol Daily News/Kathy Chaisson

Staff Writer
Published: 11/7/2019 9:54:26 PM
Modified: 11/7/2019 9:54:15 PM

ATHOL – On Wednesday night, the Board of Planning and Community Development continued its zoning bylaw amendments and applicability discussion regarding ground-mounted solar photovoltaic installations.

In July, voters at a special town meeting approved a temporary solar moratorium. At the start of the board meeting, chair David Small announced that the attorney general approved the solar moratorium vote, which gives the board one year to produce new solar bylaws and amendments.

The BPCD is working on fine-tuning and fleshing out the bylaws by “listening to different voices,” via public outreach, and “trying to figure out what is right for this community,” Small said.

Town Planner Eric Smith said he’s hoping to have one more promotion “to get the public’s view to incorporate it into this process.”

A slide presentation included a list of design standards and restrictions on solar installations and background research conducted by Smith and residents Lori Kay and William Hogan, who spearheaded the solar moratorium.

According to the community solar survey that was conducted in September, visibility is a major concern if large scale installations are allowed in residential zones.

In Athol, the existing setback, which is the distance from the property line to the panel or building and is often different for front, back and side setbacks, is 75 feet in the R-C Zoning District, which encompasses at least 70% of the town. Other zones are based on existing setbacks within Section 2.6 of Athol Zoning Bylaw. The town of Orange has a setback bylaw of 50 feet, and in Wendell, it is 100 feet for all sides.

The board’s potential recommendations for large scale installations, which “reflect standards that the citizens could support,” are 250 feet for front yard, 200 feet for rear and side yards, 250 feet from any perennial stream, and 400 feet from shoreline of any water body over five acres.

The setbacks will help achieve requirements for screening and minimizing visibility, increase the setback to perennial streams from 200 feet per the Wetlands Act to 250 feet, and establish protection for water bodies that are missing from the Wetlands Act. According to the report, there are 13 water bodies in Athol that would now have better protection: Lake Ellis, Lake Rohunta, Secret Lake, Silver Lake, Tully Lake, Davenport Pond, Ice Pond (off Chase Road), Paige Pond, Riceville Pond, South Athol Pond, Sportsman’s Pond, White Pond and Ward Pond.

Board member Richard Hayden said he felt the setback numbers were too high and suggested that putting a buffer could be equally as effective. Resident John Jackson said the solar companies are not going to spend money putting in a vegetation barrier.

Resident Lee Gersch, who has electric panels at his home asked, “are we concerned about the megawatts they produce or how ugly they are?”

Hayden suggested putting a cap on the total amount of the 15 megawatts already allowed in town in non-brownfield and previously disturbed areas.

During the presentation, questions were posed as to who will ultimately be the solar decision makers:

■Who will lead that effort to determine where PV systems are constructed in Athol?

■Will it be the State Department of Energy Resources?

■Will it be the for-profit, out-of-state solar developers?

■Will it be the members of the BPCD and the Board of Selectmen?

■Who really knows Athol best, knows what citizens feel about commercial solar? Will invest the time for Athol?

Board member Kathryn Norton asked, “how much can we do as a board?” Smith pointed out that Massachusetts is a “home rule” state, meaning the state’s constitution grants municipalities and/or counties the ability to pass laws to govern themselves as they see fit, so long as they obey the state and federal constitutions.

Small said, “we have to do what we can to protect Athol. Our mission is to figure out how land is being used in our community.”

The bylaws format presented included changes in the proposed language that were added from the previous meeting, and minor adjustments were made at Wednesday’s meeting. Hogan said this information is all being put in a “holding group” until the process is complete.

Jackson said he would like to see incentives (such as the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target Program, aka SMART), go more toward residential “so we can forego fossil fuels.”

Small said, “if power is being generated locally, there’s ways to keep it local.” Board member Marc Morgan said Athol is leading the state with the “Stretch Code,” an optional appendix to the Massachusetts building energy code that allows cities and towns to choose a more energy efficient option.

The board voted unanimously in favor to accept the highlighted changes and will continue reviewing and discussing design standards. The next step, Small said, is to use mapping software to figure out how the rules look visually — what a 250 foot setback means, for example.

The next meeting is scheduled for Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. in the Town Hall.

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