Planning Board narrowly votes to recommend solar map for Town Meeting approval

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By Robert Ford

Planning board members on Monday voted 5-4 to recommend Town Meeting approval of a proposed commercial ground-mounted solar overlay district map, while also supporting a zoning bylaw change that addresses solar developments.

In the works for more than two years, the map delineates properties where commercial solar arrays can be sited in the town, with a majority of those properties located along the Interstate 495 corridor, along with a few other scattered parcels.

Those voting against the measure were Jane Moran, Mary Larson-Marlowe, Deb Fein-Brug and chair Gary Trendel.

Speaking in opposition, Trendel noted that the town’s legal counsel previously expressed concern that the board did not adequately describe why a property would be included or left out of the map, and that the town would be hard-pressed to defend it in court should it be challenged by a property owner or a commercial solar array company.

“I do not think that we have sufficiently defined the criteria by which we identify these properties that are well-suited,” Trendel said, terming the map “overly restrictive.” Added Trendel: “I think there are a gazillion ways to poke holes in this. I think we’re going to see that at Town Meeting.”

Dave Paul countered that he was “a big proponent” of the map.

“We talked this out a lot,” Paul said. “Other towns do this. We know there are some legal challenges to this. My thought process is we put this before the town, and if they vote for it and we want to strengthen this we could add future properties at some point.”

Moran noted that the Planning Board already has the commercial solar zoning bylaw revision on the warrant, and having multiple solutions to the same problem likely will confuse Town Meeting voters.

“I guess it’s just plain common sense: Why would we vote to put this forward?” asked Moran. “Number one, because town counsel has already said it most likely would not stand up in the court. And number two, if we put both this forward and the new language that ZAC [Zoning Advisory Committee] has worked so hard to improve on, based on town counsel’s approval, why would we want to confuse our citizens?

“I would like to see this go away, and go with the language that ZAC is putting forward.”

Member Muriel Kramer questioned town counsel’s statement that it would be a challenge to defend the map in court. Town counsel previously indicated there is no clear precedent.

“I almost think that it’s a little bit of an overreach by the state to tell us that — unlike any other zoning — we can’t decide where a commercial use will be put in the town,” Kramer said. “I’m still very much in favor of letting the town have its say.”

Board members agreed there would be a “lively discussion” at the May 3 Town Meeting.

The board voted 8-1 (Moran dissenting) to recommend Town Meeting approval of the solar photovoltaic bylaw language changes.

Larson-Marlowe, who also chairs ZAC, explained that the committee tried to give the bylaw as much teeth as possible.

“Because of town counsel recommendations and advice we got along the way, we have limited these changes to this particular bylaw to those that we can justify as being a health, welfare or safety benefit to the public,” she said. “There were certain changes to the bylaw that we proposed that town counsel did recommend that we would not be able to justify having it only restricted on solar. That is why certain things got taken off of our plate here and we were restricted to some significant changes to screening, particularly a glare analysis, sound analysis and things like that. We had to focus primarily on beefing up those areas, and giving Planning Board — the way the language is written — some additional tools to assess the impact on neighbors and being able to mitigate the impact on abutters.”

Under the new bylaw, ground-mounted solar would have to go through a site plan review. Currently it only requires a special permit.

The changes, if they pass at Town Meeting, will apply to any ground-mounted commercial solar application initiated after the posting date of the hearing process — two weeks earlier.

Gelcich noted there were no new applications before the board, although a number of property owners last year requested their parcels be added to the overlay district map.

Meanwhile, the board rescheduled until March 15 a public hearing on an amendment to limit deforestation of properties in town. That also is associated with limiting solar.

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