Finishing touches on solar array bylaw in the works

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 7/8/2020 5:16:32 PM
Modified: 7/8/2020 5:16:25 PM

ATHOL — Members of the Board of Community Development and Planning and a handful of Athol residents last week got a look at the most recent draft of a bylaw designed to control the development of ground-mounted solar arrays in those areas zoned RC, Rural Single-Family Residential. More than three-quarters of the town’s land mass lies in the RC zone.

Until last year, when a moratorium on solar development was approved by a special town meeting vote of 180-2, arrays were allowed in the RC zone “by right,” meaning few requirements needed to be met by anyone wishing to construct a facility on private property.

The moratorium gave the town the time it needed to write and enact regulations and requirements governing the construction of solar arrays that are 10,000 square feet in size, or larger.

The latest draft tightens up the setbacks required for installations relative to their proximity to bodies of water. Earlier versions said no arrays would be allowed less than 400 feet from the shoreline of any body of water five acres in size or larger, or less than 200 feet from a perennial stream. When it was noticed that ponds less than five acres in size were not addressed, the BCDP voted to require a setback of at least 200 feet from smaller bodies of water.

The latest draft of the bylaw also addresses the issue of taxes. The developer of any project that may be exempt from the payment of personal or property taxes will be required to enter into an agreement with the town for payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT). The agreement would provide for payment to the town of the equivalent of any personal or property taxes that might otherwise be paid. A PILOT agreement must be approved by the Board of Assessors before any building permit can be granted.

Several property owners have expressed opposition to the bylaw, arguing that landowners should be able to do as they please with their own property. Rumblings that at least one landowner wanted to construct a large solar array on property near Secret Lake provided much of the motivation for enactment of the moratorium and development of the new bylaw.

Supporters say the move is necessary to maintain property values and quality of life.

The draft of the bylaw states its aim “is to balance the rights of landowners to use their land with the corresponding rights of abutting and neighboring landowners to live without undue disturbance from noise, lighting, traffic, signage, smoke, fumes, dust, odor, glare or stormwater runoff.”

In order to maintain the town’s character as a “small New England village,” the purpose of the bylaw also is to “retain the natural beauty, aesthetic appeal, historic value and scenic appeal” of Athol for both residents and visitors.

Athol Planning and Economic Development Director Eric Smith said the BCDP hopes to vote on final wording of the bylaw at its meeting on Aug. 5. It will then be forwarded to Town Counsel John Barrett for review and, if it passes legal muster, will then be presented at a public hearing on Oct. 7. Smith said it currently appears that the fall town meeting will be held on Oct. 19.

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