Temporary Solar Moratorium Gets Mixed Reception At Planning Board

A solar farm under construction in the UK. Photo: Geograph (CC BY_SA 2.0)

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Planning Board, December 1, 2021


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

The meeting packet can be read here. 

Highlights

  • Planning Board begins public hearing on temporary moratorium for large-scale ground mounted solar installations
  • Archipelago requests another extension of the discussion on its preliminary subdivision proposal for 11-13 East Pleasant Street
  • Board discusses input of members on reports to Town Council and meeting minutes

Present:
Planning Board members: Doug Marshall, (Chair), Jack Jemsek, Maria Chao, Thom Long, Andrew MacDougall, and Johanna Neumann. Absent: Janet McGowan 

Planning staff: Planning Director Chris Brestrup and Assistant Pam Field-Sadler

There were 15 members of the public in the audience.

Temporary Moratorium On Large Scale Ground Mounted Solar Installations
Town Councilors Pat DeAngelis (District 2) and Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) introduced a proposal for an 18-month moratorium on the construction of ground mounted photovoltaic projects producing more than 250 kW of electricity, to give sufficient time for Amherst to develop a solar siting bylaw. This action was spurred by members of Smart Solar Amherst who are constituents of the councilors and are calling their attention to the fact that, unlike most surrounding towns, Amherst does not have a solar siting bylaw that could be used to evaluate projects such as the one proposed for 45 forested acres off Shutesbury Road.

Griesemer pointed out that the proposed bylaw was not about stopping solar, but rather about being smart on how it is employed. Because of the public hearings and committee reviews required to enact zoning changes, town staff estimated that it would take about 18 months to develop and enact a solar bylaw. DeAngelis pointed out that the proposed Shutesbury Road project is larger than the entire Amethyst Brook Conservation area and is entirely on forested land. The proposed temporary moratorium would not stop rooftop solar or small solar installations. Currently, proposed solar projects are usually evaluated by the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) under article 3.340.0 of the Zoning Bylaw dealing with energy transmission and production.

Public Comment:
Although all those commenting agreed on the need for a bylaw specifically pertaining to solar installations, they disagreed on the advisability of a moratorium to develop one. Steve Roof, who operates the solar installation at Hampshire College, said the wording of the moratorium proposal seems to portray solar arrays as a nuisance that needs to be regulated, and doesn’t take into account their benefit to the climate. He contended that a solar array can produce a reduction of carbon about 100 times greater than that of forests per acre. He did point to the need for a solar assessment study to determine the most appropriate locations for solar constructions.

Lenore Bryck of Climate Action Now contended that one cannot just compare the carbon saving aspects of solar versus forests. She said this does not take into account the complexity of the ecosystem that forests help regulate. She added that we need to preserve forests all over the planet and that we need both solar and forests.

Newly elected District 5 councilor Ana Devlin-Gauthier encouraged adoption of a temporary moratorium. She said Amherst should have had a solar bylaw years ago and that this is a gap in our policy that needs to be fixed. She added that 18 months is really a short period of time, but without the moratorium, developers can freeze the zoning of any proposed project so they do not need to comply with new restrictions a solar bylaw may impose.

Michael DeChiara, a member of the Planning Board in Shutesbury, said that Shutesbury passed a solar bylaw in 2015 and has amended it twice. He recommended buying some time to do it right and to develop what is appropriate for Amherst. He pointed out that at least three other towns have passed 18-month moratoriums to develop solar siting bylaws.

Laura Draucker, chair of the town’s Environment and Climate Action Committee, said that, while she is generally in support of the moratorium, she worried that 18 months was too long. She thinks that Amherst will eventually have to convert some farmland and forests to solar arrays to meet its climate goals, but agreed that the town needs a solar assessment study.

Sharon Weizenbaum contended that Roof’s comments focused on energy production from industrial solar, but didn’t mention anything about its impact on the environment. She noted that there will be a forum in Shutesbury on December 12 at 7:15 p.m. to look at ways of supporting solar without clear-cutting forests.

Planning Board Questions
Because the Planning Board has not considered solar projects in the past, board members submitted questions about the current process and possible problems to the Planning Department. The Planning Department is still working on completing answers to all the questions, but was prepared to discuss some of the board’s concerns. The 15 questions and responses can be read here

Planning Director Chris Brestrup said the Zoning Bylaw Article 3.340.0 (Transformer station or other energy facility) does not really apply to solar, so it is difficult to evaluate projects using the existing zoning. She said that, to date, solar proposals have been much smaller than the one proposed off Shutesbury Road, so boards (primarily the ZBA) have been able to evaluate and approve them. She asked Roof and Drauker what is involved in a solar assessment study, to which they replied that the Energy and Climate Action Committee was exploring how to conduct such a study, possibly with the involvement of consultants.

Four large solar projects have been built in Amherst so far: those at Atkins Farms and Hampshire College are for private use, and those on Montague Road and Pulpit Hill are connected to the grid. Special permits have been granted for a 26-acre installation at Hickory Ridge and 8 acres at the north landfill. Conditions imposed on these projects include notification of abutters; proper screening and landscaping; a maintenance plan; no use of herbicides; and, at the time of decommissioning, replacement of all trees removed in construction and removal of all materials within a year. Board member Johanna Neumann estimated that solar arrays last about 25 to 30 years. She was uncertain if any materials could be recycled.

According to Brestrup, landowners can cut down trees on their properties unless it conflicts with the May 2021 Stormwater Bylaw or if it is restricted by the Conservation Commission or if it is  on a scenic road. The current process does not specify that a developer would be responsible if wells or groundwater are polluted by erosion from their solar installation.

Board member Jack Jemsek, who does groundwater evaluation for solar projects said that worrying about the environmental impact of solar projects is “a bit of a stretch” if properly monitored. He added that solar “has minimal impact on groundwater,” that “trees and vegetation suck up more water than solar”, and that most disasters are due to run-off and erosion. He also said that, even though he supports the development of a solar bylaw, he trusts the ZBA and its process, and thinks the moratorium is “not a good look for the town.” He said that there are “enough impediments” in developing solar, such as creating agreements with National Grid and Eversource, and the town should not add another complication with a moratorium.

Thom Long and Neumann also thought the current process is adequate for the time being. Neumann said that approval is “not totally unregulated.” 

The planning staff is developing maps of forested land and wetlands in town and finishing the answers to the Planning Board’s questions. Therefore, the board voted unanimously to continue the discussion of the moratorium until its December 15 meeting at 7 p.m.

AMP Energy Proposal For Shutesbury Road Solar Project Temporarily Withdrawn
Brestrup reported that AMP energy, the company planning to develop the 45 acre solar array off Shutesbury Road,  was unable to provide the Conservation Commission with information it had requested on soils and groundwater during the winter months. Therefore, the company withdrew its application without prejudice, presumably to bring it back in the spring.

Minutes Of Meetings And Planning Reports To Town Council
No Planning Board meeting minutes were completed by the time of this meeting, but Brestrup said there will be several sets ready for the December 15 meeting. Planning Board Chair Doug Marshall noted that he reviewed minutes for the Northampton Planning Board that were only five pages long for a three-hour meeting. He felt the Amherst Planning Board minutes are too long, and the amount of detail included was preventing the board from keeping up to date with approving minutes. He said he is inclined only to accept “significant” corrections to minutes. He requested a report from Brestrup listing the minutes that are still outstanding.

Marshall noted that Janet McGowan was concerned that the Planning Board reports on the four zoning proposals under discussion were created by Brestrup and that Marshall had signed off on them without allowing comments from other board members. Marshall admitted that time had been so short that  the process was “not optimal.” Maria Chao said she did not remember the Planning Board ever voting on or even discussing its reports in the past, and pointed out that Massachusetts General Law stipulates only that the Planning Board must submit “a report.” Neumann said she thought the reports were“accurate.”

Hearing For Preliminary Subdivision Plan For 11-13 East Pleasant Street Again Delayed
Archipelago Investments, developers of One East Pleasant, Kendrick Place, and Spring Street, filed a preliminary subdivision plan for 11-13 East Pleasant Street on July 12 in order to avoid having to comply with any changes to the mixed-use building bylaw now being considered by the town council. Currently, there is no minimum requirement for nonresidential space in “mixed-use” buildings, as evidenced by the minimal area of the approximately 200-square-foot space in the Spring Street building. 

The hearing on the preliminary subdivision plan has been delayed several times since July, and Archipelago representative Kyle Wilson asked that it be continued again until December 15, since the council is slated to vote on the new mixed-use bylaw on December 6. Brestrup said that the most recent design would probably meet a requirement that nonresidential space be at least 30% of the ground floor area. If the plans did not meet the conditions of the new bylaw, Archipelago could either invoke the subdivision plan already submitted or change the design.

Wilson was not present at this meeting, a fact that was met with criticism from the board. There was confusion as to what would occur if the continuance was not granted. Brestrup said Wilson knew that he was on the agenda, and it was his choice not to come.

Nevertheless, the Planning Board voted 6-0 to allow the hearing on 11-13 East Pleasant Street to be continued until December 15 at 6:45 p.m.

The meeting was adjourned at 9:16 p.m.

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