Solar farm moratorium on Blandford agendas

Blandford Planning Board chairman Richard Barnard. (Photo by Amy Porter)

BLANDFORD – The town’s Planning Board has scheduled a public hearing for 6 p.m., Monday, Aug. 5 in the Blandford Town Office,1 Russell Stage Road, for a one-year moratorium for ground mounted solar installations.

The public hearing will be immediately followed by a special town meeting at 7 p.m., which includes a vote on the moratorium.
Richard Barnard, chairman of the Planning Board. said the purpose of the moratorium will be to update the bylaws for ground-mounted solar installations.
“We have to get our bylaws in order, so they are not contradicting each other,” Barnard said, adding that solar is a new industry, and old laws contradict existing laws covering it.
Barnard said currently Blandford has four solar arrays, ranging from five to  30 acres, and another two have started the process, with one having already come before the Conservation Commission.
“There has been some public pushback. People think we’re being overwhelmed by it. They’d like to slow down a minute and take a breath,” Barnard said.

The warrant article for the special town meeting states:
Many of these projects have involved large scale clear cutting of trees and ground vegetation and several have been located in close proximity to abutting residential neighborhoods.
Pursuant to the Zoning By-law, ground mounted solar photovoltaic installations are allowed pursuant to site plan review and special permit in the Agricultural Zoning district in the Town. That bylaw, however, has proved inadequate for protecting the Town’s environmental resources and mitigating other negative effects of large-scale ground mounted facilities on the town. Further, the high demand for large-scale ground mounted solar installation sites has demonstrated the potential for rapidly changing the face of the Town, thereby raising novel legal, planning, and economic issues and creating an urgent need to review the current regulation of this use…
Imposition of a temporary moratorium on ground mounted solar photovoltaic installations will allow sufficient time to assess these issues and amend the Zoning By-law to address the impact of these facilities on the Town’s environmental resources and its planning goals.

Barnard said the Planning Board is an all-volunteer board, some elected, all unpaid.
“It’s not only that they come, hearing after hearing,” he said, adding, “It’s very confusing.”
They did pass some new bylaws a year ago, he said, but they want to review the zoning. One area they want to look at is commercial versus residential installations. Currently, a homeowner can put a solar array on a roof without a special permit. However, if the homeowner puts that same-size array on the ground, a special permit is required.
“Things like that, the difference between a million dollar solar farm versus a household array. The difference between commercial and residential ground-mounted. We need to have our bylaws state that,” Barnard said.
Barnard said currently a homeowner has put in an application for a permit for a ground mounted solar array. He said this application will be grandfathered in before the moratorium, as will any commercial installation that filed for a special permit prior to the notice of the public hearing and vote.
The Planning Board is encouraging residents to come to the public hearing. “There are two sides to every coin. It’s good revenue for the town; a very clean industry, with no trucks coming in and out,” Barnard said, adding that any amendments coming out of the public hearing may be presented as amendments on the floor of the special town meeting before the vote.
Barnard said even if the town votes to put in the moratorium, it needs to go to the Attorney General. “It could be turned down,” he said.
If the moratorium stands, it will go until June 30, 2020. During that time, the town will undertake a planning process to study and address what revisions are needed in the by-laws to regulate the industry, protect the town’s environmental resources, and to further its planning goals.
Barnard said the town plans to seek the assistance of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and VHB Engineering out of Springfield to assist them with the review.

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