Push toward solar zoning generates acrimony

  • This small solar array, located at the corner of Baldwinville Road/Route 2A and South Royalston Road, is one of several currently in operation in the town of Athol. ATHOL DAILY NEWS/GREG VINE

For Athol Daily News
Published: 5/24/2020 11:47:06 AM
Modified: 5/24/2020 11:47:05 AM

ATHOL — The Board of Planning and Community Development held a meeting Wednesday to update the public on efforts to craft zoning bylaws governing the construction of large, ground-mounted solar arrays in Athol’s RC3 zone, which makes up three-quarters of the town’s land mass.

Before the enactment of a year-long moratorium on “solar farms” last year, existing bylaws allowed their construction in the residential zone with few restrictions.

While much of what has been committed to paper thus far seemed to have general support, the issue of folding so-called “greenfields” into the proposed bylaws generated some heated discussion. While some hope new solar arrays will be constructed on previously disturbed areas — gravel pits, previously forested areas, and similar sites — a proposed greenfields provision would allow construction in areas that are mainly forest land, provided the property owner commits to preserving at least half the parcel as open space.

“Regarding potential greenfield sites,” said Secret Lake resident Bill Hogan, “I think there ought to be documentation regarding the number of properties in town that would qualify for that, whether it’s 50 sites, or 150 sites. And what kind of (electrical) capacity would be available from them?”

Hogan said solar development on dozens of greenfield sites would produce more power than Athol residents, businesses, and municipal facilities could utilize.

“So, what if we make more power than we need?” asked Lee Gersh. “Is that a bad thing? Why don’t we try to make money off power? Why not? It doesn’t disturb anyone.”

“It certainly does if you’re looking at it out your window.” said Board of Planning and Community Development member Marc Morgan.

“Not unless you’re a moron,” Gersh shot back.

That comment prompted Board of Planning and Community Development Chair David Small to threaten to mute Gersh’s audio feed.

“We’re not even close to producing what we need for ourselves,” said board member Aimee Hanson. “It’s not like we even need to have this conversation right now because we can revisit it later, can’t we?”

Athol Director of Planning and Development Eric Smith, attempting to get the discussion back on track, said, “We need a town energy plan. We need to have a town climate action plan. But some of these issues are more global than just coming up with a zoning plan.”

“I don’t understand,” said an openly frustrated Gersh. “Do we want to commit to keeping global temperature from rising to 1.5 degrees Celsius or not?”

“Obviously, we’re not the entire planet here,” stressed Hanson. “We’re trying to figure out something that’s going to fit our town. And we’re getting off topic when we start talking about temperature rising for the entire planet. Can we please stay on topic?”

Athol resident Laurie Hickey pointed out that a survey conducted last fall indicated most respondents want to see large solar arrays built on previously disturbed land and industrial and developed properties, while protecting forest lands.

Smith said he wants to have a final draft of the bylaw ready in time for the board’s meeting on July 1. The panel is under pressure to finalize the proposal in time for the fall Town Meeting, which traditionally takes place in October, the month that the moratorium expires.

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