Athol residents want stricter solar array bylaw

  • Yuehui “Aurora” Li, a graduate student from the Tufts University Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning program presents part of her team’s Athol Solar Zoning Bylaw Assessment Field Project to area residents at the Athol Public Library recently. Athol Daily News/Kathy Chaisson

  • Yuehui “Aurora” Li, Lina Xie, Elisabeth Kellam, and Brian Froeb (not pictured) presented their Athol Solar Zoning Bylaw Assessment to area residents at the Athol Public Library earlier this month. Athol Daily News/Kathy Chaisson

Staff Writer
Published: 5/20/2019 4:09:21 PM

ATHOL — Earlier this month, graduate students from the Tufts University Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning program presented their Athol Solar Zoning Bylaw Assessment during a public meeting at the Athol Public Library. Athol Director of Planning and Community Development Eric Smith brought them on board to research solar development in town and to propose recommendations to improve the solar bylaw, which determines the placement, design, construction, operation, supervision, modification and removal of ground-mounted solar photovoltaic installations. The final report of the field project by Elisabeth Kellam, Lina Xie, Brian Froeb, and Yuehui “Aurora” Li became available last week.

The meeting addressed decreasing solar energy costs, growing demand for clean and renewable energy, and state initiatives. The field project team researched different existing zoning bylaws in other Massachusetts communities to determine how they could be utilized by Athol, using more specific language or giving authority to set stricter restrictions. Bylaws of other towns reviewed included Erving, Warwick, Wendell, Orange, Phillipston, Petersham, Royalston and New Salem.

The students said that the citizens of Athol are “extremely concerned” with the environmental impact of solar arrays. The project’s goal was to identify and prioritize ideal sites for solar array development based on community considerations. The new assessment says that residents were concerned about the environmental, economic and visual impacts of development, and believe more actions should be taken by the planning board to regulate and limit solar development. Currently, there are four solar developments, located on Electric Street, Templeton Road and at Adams Farm and Thrower Brook.

Susan Mondi-Sykes, an abutter to the proposed Conant Road solar array and a zoning board member, said at the meeting that there should be more safeguards in place for property owners. “People want the open space. That’s why they moved there.”

The visual impacts of the proposed Conant Road and Secret Lake neighborhood solar arrays have brought concern by abutting homeowners. The report states, “these concerns are especially important in Athol because current zoning bylaws do not account for viewshed considerations, and tourism is significant to the region’s economy.” It also says that many citizens think solar development should not be allowed in areas zoned as residential.

According to the report, despite concerns, residents support the development of renewable energy, especially solar energy. Froeb said the state wants 40 percent of Massachusetts to be run on renewable energy. Brownfields (previously developed land that is not currently in use) aren’t considered potential sites because the state doesn’t offer money for it, he said.

The students produced recommended changes to Athol’s solar zoning bylaw using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping and analysis to explore spatial, environmental and geographical information to determine the most suitable solar sites.

Recommended changes were based on high, medium and low priority. High priority includes proposed amendments that the field project team believes are essential to upholding the goals of the community. The medium priority means the team believes the amendments are worth exploring when considering the goals of the community. Low priority amendments are what the team feels are relevant but minor to upholding the goals of the community.

Town Planner Eric Smith said in the next few weeks he hopes to have a survey prepared to help collect more broad public input from Athol residents. For more information, opinions or to share thoughts, e-mail Smith at planning@townofathol.org.

The Athol Solar Zoning Bylaw Assessment can be found at the Town of Athol web site:

https://bit.ly/30pAuIS


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