Moratorium Proposed For Large-Scale Solar Installations

Map of Hickory Ridge Golf Course recently acquired by the town. Plans for development of the property include a 26 acre solar array which would not be affected by the proposed solar farm moratorium. Photo: amherstma.gov

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council of November 8, 2021 – Part 2

This meeting was conducted over Zoom and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here.

Coverage of the proposed solar installation off of Shutesbury Road can be read here.

Present:
All Councilors were in attendance.

Staff: Town Manager Paul Bockelman and Clerk of the Council Athena O’Keeffe

Temporary Moratorium For Large-Scale Solar Project Proposed

District 2 Councilors Lynn Griesemer (Council President) and Pat DeAngelis proposed a temporary zoning amendment to halt approval of ground-mounted solar projects producing more than 250 kilowatts until a new bylaw regulating solar projects can be drafted. This temporary moratorium would require public hearings by the Planning Board and Community Resources Committee and then be approved by two-thirds (nine members) of the council to be adopted. 

Currently, Article 3 of the zoning bylaw states that solar farms may be approved by the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals, depending on the zoning district. Several projects have already been approved by the town. However, members of the citizens’ group Smart Solar Amherst, with members from Amherst and nearby towns, brought their concerns about the destruction of forests to create solar energy to the District 2 councilors after they learned of the plan to impact about 100 acres of forest owned by WD Cowls to create a 45-acre, 11-megawatt solar farm. Most municipalities in Massachusetts have bylaws regulating the construction of solar arrays, but Amherst does not; Griesemer and DeAngelis felt that the current zoning was inadequate to protect Amherst’s natural resources.

“…it is clear we need guidelines for ground-mounted solar with specific siting and design criteria, so we avoid the environmental disasters of erosion and river pollution seen in Orange, Williamsburg, and other communities.”
— Pat DeAngelis (District 2 town councilor)

The temporary moratorium would only affect large-scale ground mounted solar. It would not affect rooftop solar projects. It would also not affect any project brought to the Planning Board or ZBA prior to the adoption of the moratorium, but no other permits would be granted until the passage of the new bylaw. 

DeAngelis said, “Amherst cares about climate change, but it is clear we need guidelines for ground-mounted solar with specific siting and design criteria, so we avoid the environmental disasters of erosion and river pollution seen in Orange, Williamsburg, and other communities.”

sAccording to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, a solar developer is paying more than $1 million for damaging wetlands and polluting the Mill River in Williamsburg after a suit filed by the office of the Attorney General.

Building Commission Rob Morra said that the moratorium would not affect the proposed solar array at Hickory Ridge since that special permit was already issued by the ZBA. And Director of Conservation Dave Ziomek said the solar array was a condition of the sale, enabling the town to obtain the property at a much reduced price. He added that the 26 acres of solar planned for Hickory Ridge involves the cutting of about 200 trees, many fewer than the 45 acres of forest to be clear-cut off Shutesbury Road.

“This is at least the fourth solar proposal that has come before the town, and we never needed a bylaw before.”
— Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large town councilor)

Councilor Comments
George Ryan (District 3) asked why the town needs a moratorium when previous projects have “worked fine” through the ZBA.

Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) added that “this is at least the fourth solar proposal that has come before the town, and we never needed a bylaw before. A model bylaw was developed by the state in 2014, and Amherst did nothing for seven years. Now, because the project proposed is in North Amherst, we need a moratorium.” 

Hanneke  went on to note that the Community Resources Committee (CRC) is meeting four times this month in order to have the zoning changes already  before it ready for referral to the full council. There is no time to schedule a hearing for this proposal before the new council is seated. According to the town’s charter, the council has 65 days to schedule a hearing, but a notice of the hearing must be posted 14 days prior to it taking place.

Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) wanted to acknowledge the residents who will be impacted by the project. But she said it also affects “our larger home,” the Earth, and the urgency about climate change. She asked people to look at this project from the point of view of love for trees and the ecosystem, and stated that we all need to work together to do what is best for the planet. Then she added that she has been talking to the community investors in the project who have been working on it for several months. The project is “being moved along by town staff.” She asked what the town staff thought about the project. And she said that there are not enough roof tops to provide the carbon free energy we need. She pointed to the need for more study involving environmental scientists with input from the community investor.

Ziomek replied that the moratorium is not a proposal by town staff, but rather a council proposal by Griesemer and Deangelis. Staff has looked at solar bylaws from other towns, but they  do not approve projects or bylaws; town boards and committees grant the permits and vote on the bylaws. The Shutesbury Road site is a complex site with complex issues, he said. The proposal is being evaluated by the Conservation Commission now. It has not been reviewed by any other committee, but will probably come before the ZBA in the next 30 to 45 days.

Evan Ross (District 4) said he struggles with the idea of cutting down trees for solar energy. He noted that he has a background in forest ecology and wildlife and said that Amherst has set “lofty goals” to combat climate change but we don’t have enough rooftops or parking lots to meet them. He added that he is uncomfortable with moratoriums proposed in response to a single project. He would be okay with a solar siting bylaw, but a moratorium won’t stop this project, since the developer could freeze the zoning by filing a temporary subdivision plan, as Archipelago Investments did for 11 East Pleasant Street, and there is no other large-scale solar project in the pipeline.

Griesemer estimated that it would take at least a year to develop a solar bylaw, and there might be another project proposed during that time which would be affected by this moratorium. She said she was surprised that Amherst doesn’t have a bylaw already. DeAngelis added that Nitsch Engineering has a report on suitable sites for solar arrays that minimize destroying forests and farmland.

Dorothy Pam (District 3) said that the town needs a moratorium to create a bylaw. She said that just because we didn’t have a bylaw in the past doesn’t mean we shouldn’t create one now. Darcy DuMont (District 5) said that this project is very different from previously approved projects, since it is slated to be constructed entirely in a forested area.

Steve Schreiber (District 4) said he doesn’t support any moratorium—that a moratorium is a sign that we haven’t been doing our job. He said he trusts the ZBA, the Planning Board, and the Conservation Commission to make the correct judgments. He noted that the stone walls one sees when hiking in forests are a reminder that our forests were once farms. Solar arrays are the next iteration.

Cathy Schoen (District 1) said she wished the council had put this bylaw in the zoning initiatives passed at the beginning of the year. She worried about who would write the bylaw. DeAngelis said she is working with a group of people from Shutesbury, Belchertown, and Pelham to create a bylaw modeled after the ones in those towns. 

Bahl-Milne added to her earlier statements, saying, “We are hearing different information from scientists, some saying we should keep forests intact and others saying that is not possible… We should let the Conservation Commission and boards do their jobs,” and meanwhile work on the bylaw with input from the Energy and Climate Action Committee. This project can still go ahead. She said instead of alienating the community partner, we can bring them into the discussion and encourage them to mitigate the environmental impacts of the project by creating pollinator gardens and other ameliorating factors. The community partner could use the money that would be spent on filing a temporary subdivision plan to work with the town.

DeAngelis pointed out that pollinator gardens do not replace the carbon sequestration provided by trees. She noted that state legislators are using data gathered to make a statewide determination intended to protect the Commonwealth’s forests, most of which are in Western Massachusetts.

Griesemer made a motion to refer the moratorium proposal to the CRC, with a public hearing to be held by January 12, 2022, within the 65 days allowed by the charter. Hanneke again objected, saying that there will be new members of the CRC after January 1, and there would be no way for the CRC to finish the hearing by then. She suggested that the council not refer the proposal, but rather that the full council hold the public hearing  on January 6. But Griesemer replied that the council cannot stop doing business because of the transition to the new council.

Alisa Brewer (at large) said that it doesn’t sound like the council has the nine votes necessary to pass the moratorium, so it seems pointless to refer it to the CRC only to have it defeated by a vote of the council. In the 7-6 vote to refer, Pam, Schoen, Andy Steinberg (at large), Sarah Swartz (District 1), DeAngelis, DuMont, and Griesemer voted yes. Of the six no votes, Brewer, Ross, Ryan, and Schreiber will not be on the council in 2022. In the yes column, DuMont and Swartz did not run for reelection.

Public Comments
About 75 people attended this virtual council meeting. The majority of those who spoke at the public comment period that began the meeting,  were against the proposed large solar project. Michael DeChiara, chair of Shutesbury’s Planning Board, spoke in favor of creating a moratorium on industrial-scale solar until Amherst has a bylaw. He pointed out that the global climate conference in Glasgow, COP26, has named deforestation as a major threat for climate change. He said that Shutesbury’s solar bylaw requires a developer to create four acres of carbon sequestration for every acre of solar field created.

Jeff McQueen said he was on the Leverett Planning Board when the town drafted its solar bylaw. He said there was a lot of support for solar, but not on an industrial scale. He is now an abutter of this project. Renee Moss, another abutter, said that we need both solar power and forests. She recommended a major scale up of forest preservation, not clear-cutting. 

Lenore Bryck said it was “ludicrous” to destroy green energy to produce green energy, and that forests are complex ecosystems which are destroyed by clear-cutting. Stu Shulman said he has guilt about being a NIMBY, but he often walks in those woods and sees all sorts of plants and wildlife. He said there are much more suitable places for solar and recommends a cost/benefit analysis of the project.

Bart Bouricious, who lived in Amherst for 25 years and now lives in Montague, said that mature forests can continue absorbing carbon for centuries and that the lifetime of a forest is so much longer than that of solar panels. If left undisturbed, forests could fill the gap between human produced carbon dioxide and its absorption. Sharon Weizenbaum also pointed to the contribution of the forests of Western Massachusetts in combating climate change. She said, “To cut down forests is insane.”

An opposing view was voiced by Elisa Campbell, who said that she spent her life as an environmentalist, but “we have waited too long to generate green power and save the planet. We need to take drastic action.” She thinks adding solar to this site will be better for the planet than not doing it and added that “we don’t have time to do what we want to do. We need to do our part now.”

Corinne Demas countered that Campbell presented a false choice, that we can preserve forests and build solar. She said that she recently took a walk in the woods off Shutesbury Road and suddenly came across the large solar array off Pratt Corner Road in Shutesbury, a fenced-in industrial complex. She believes in solar, but feels we need to protect what is important to us.

Hilda Greenbaum invited residents to see the large solar farm behind her North Amherst house and observe its effects on abutters. Kitty Axelson-Berry and Jack Hirsch also spoke in favor of the moratorium.

Update On Hickory Ridge
Ziomek said that about 250 people came to the three information sessions on the site in October. Many residents also posted comments and suggestions on Engage Amherst. A studio project in a landscape architecture course at UMass provided more ideas. The town is applying for Community Development Block Grants and Community Preservation Act funds to develop trails on the site and needs to assess if there are any contaminants on the site. He said that nothing has been decided yet. The town is continuing to do outreach, especially to the nearby apartment complexes. The Affordable Housing Trust has expressed some ideas for affordable housing on the portion of the property bordering West Pomeroy Lane. 

Ziomek added that the 26-acre solar array will be fenced, but not the access roads. The solar company must repair the roads if they are damaged and provide the 17 acres of ecological mitigation required by the state. The company will pay Payments In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) to the town. Because Amherst does not need the 6.2 megawatts of power that will be produced at the site, it will be provided to another municipality yet to be determined.

Brewer asked why the areas slated for various uses are not marked, but Ziomek answered that Amherst does not yet own the property. More evaluation will be completed after the sale goes through, hopefully by the end of the year. He envisions more events for the public in the spring.

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