Planning Board Remains Firmly In The Grips Of Developers

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Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Planning Board, December 15, 2021

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

The meeting packet can be found here.

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

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

Members of the public: 38

Planning Board Does Not Recommend Solar Moratorium To Town Council
Despite the testimonies of 10 of the 12 members of the public who spoke, the recommendation of the chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), cautions from the building commissioner, and the passion of the two town councilor sponsors, the Planning Board voted 5-2 not to recommend that the council adopt the temporary moratorium on large, ground-mounted solar installations until a solar bylaw is written. Although all Planning Board members agreed that the town needs a solar bylaw, the majority did not want to delay any potential solar projects while the bylaw was being written, saying that the past reviews by the ZBA and Conservation Commission have served the town well in the six projects already constructed or approved.

The Planning Board opened the public hearing on the temporary moratorium (labeled Article 16 of the Zoning Bylaw) on December 1. The temporary moratorium proposed by Town Councilors Pat DeAngelis and Lynn Griesemer (District 2) would halt approval of any ground mounted solar array of greater than one acre, or producing more than 250 MW of electricity for up to 18 months,or until the town develops a solar bylaw. The moratorium would not interfere with the development of small solar projects, rooftop solar, solar canopies, or any solar projects already approved.

Because solar installations are a new topic for the board, they solicited information from the Planning Department, the Energy and Climate Action Committee (ECAC),and the ZBA. Their questions and the answers they received, outlining the current means of evaluating and approving solar projects, can be found on pages 31–40 of the meeting packet.

 ZBA Chair Steve Judge wrote a letter to the Planning Board in support of the moratorium, saying that the existing zoning bylaw gives very little guidance about permitting large solar arrays (LSA). In it, he cites five reasons why there should be a pause on approval of these projects until guidelines can be set. The letter states:

  1. There will be an increase in the number of LSA applications in the future. Having the guidance of the bylaw will assist the ZBA in making consistent decisions and will reduce the workload on the ZBA Members and the staff. 
  2. This is very complicated. Decisions on permitting a LSA involves scientific, ecological, and water conservation considerations. The ZBA must also consider the cost benefit analysis of forest preservation vs. the generation of a non-fossil fuel. These are just a few of the factors the ZBA must consider. Some of these considerations are highly technical. The town and the applicant would be well served to have the guidance given to the ZBA by the bylaw. 
  3. I think ZBA has the responsibility to make these decisions on the basis of the best information we can obtain and through a consistent and fair process. Giving the public and the applicant a roadmap of the factors that will be considered by the ZBA, the kind of information the ZBA should receive from the applicant and what findings the ZBA has to make is at the heart of a fair and deliberate process. A solar bylaw can do that. 
  4. Neither the Town nor the ZBA should continue to make decisions in these matters without the benefit of what other municipalities and legislative bodies have learned. Developing a bylaw will require that the proposed bylaw will be informed by the experience of other policy makers and towns. The town and the ZBA will do a better job balancing the many factors that need to be considered. 
  5. Lastly, I think that the town would be better protected from potential legal liability if the decisions of the ZBA on LSAs were directly based on the provisions of a LSA bylaw.

When asked his opinion on the moratorium, Building Commissioner Rob Morra stated that none of the projects reviewed thus far by the ZBA have been as problematic as the one proposed for the WD Cowls land off Shutesbury Road. The permitted project at Hickory Ridge involved the removal of 197 trees,which will need to be replaced when the array is decommissioned. The 45-acre LSA proposed for the forested land off Shutesbury Road involves the cutting down of thousands of trees. He said that the town “really needs a bylaw.”

Public Comments Strongly Support A Temporary Moratorium On LSAs
Twelve  of the attendees spoke during the public comment opportunity. Martha Hanner urged support of the temporary moratorium in order to develop a bylaw which specifies the most appropriate sites for solar projects after an assessment study. She said that as Amazonian forests decrease, temperate forests become more important in carbon sequestration. 

Sharon Weizenbaum said she has been going door-to-door in her neighborhood and has found that nine out of ten people are not aware of the proposal to construct the large solar array off Shutesbury Road. She supports the moratorium in the interest of public transparency.

Gerry Weiss noted that the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources issued model guidelines for small, medium, and large-scale solar in 2014, and that more than 200 communities in the state have used them to develop their solar bylaws. He supports a temporary moratorium whileAmherst  develops a bylaw, saying, “If it’s worth doing, it is worth taking the time to do it right.”

Eric Bachrach, an abutter of the proposed Shutesbury Road project, said a moratorium is a smart move that would give the town time to evaluate forest preservation vis a vis solar. He also said that the state is reevaluating the “Dover” amendment of the Mass. General Laws (MGL Chapter 40A, section 3), which permits certain oversized structures to be built despite local zoning. This amendment had been used by people and companies promoting LSAs in controversial settings, he said. He added that while the moratorium was in effect, the town could encourage rooftop solar.

Lenore Bryck of Climate Action Now said that carbon metrics are only part of the picture and don’t take into account the complex ecosystems of forests. The metrics for entire ecosystems are still being developed. She said there is not enough experience on Amherst boards to evaluate large solar arrays. Installing them in forests is relatively new, she said, “and we don’t know the full consequences.” She added that it would not be prudent to trust that out-of-town companies, interested in turning a profit, will safely protect a complex ecosystem. 

Jack Hirsch asserted that solar technology is most likely a transitional technology and will be replaced by a more efficient non-fossil fuel energy source, and cautioned against clearing mature trees to make way for large solar arrays.

Aquatic biologist Ethan Nedeau pointed out that the site of the proposed LSA off Shutesbury Road is uphill from Atkins Reservoir, the major source of Amherst’s drinking water. He said that in 2005, the town of Shutesbury wanted to partner with Amherst to protect this vital watershed, but an agreement was never finalized. If it had been, the site of the proposed LSA would be in the protected area. He urged neighboring towns to work together to protect watershed areas and said that a moratorium would give the town a chance to formulate such an agreement.

Other speakers in support of the temporary moratorium were Renee Moss, Molly Gallagher, Michael Lipinski, Phil Rich, Ira Addes, Bob Pam, Kathleen Bridgewater, and Jane Scanlon. 

Speaking against a moratorium was Eric Wilkinson, who said that time is running out to address climate change and a moratorium would discourage developers from building solar and wind in Amherst. He supports a solar bylaw, but not the moratorium.

Steve Roof, who is in charge of the solar array at Hampshire College, also spoke against the moratorium. He feels a moratorium will delay progress in meeting Amherst’s climate action goals. He has faith in the Conservation Commission and the Planning Board to protect natural resources, and added that solar and wind are “the only way” we can counteract burning fossil fuels. He maintained that photovoltaic sites have a “much higher” carbon reduction benefit than forests, and that we only need to utilize 5% of existing forests for solar to meet our climate goals. He said we can have both forests and solar.

Planning Board Members Reject Pleas To Develop A Solar Bylaw Before Approving More LSAs
In speaking for the temporary moratorium, DeAngelis said Amherst needs a bylaw to assure appropriate placement and responsible decommissioning of solar projects, as well as provisions to repair any damage caused by their construction or operation. The moratorium would give the town a chance to develop such a bylaw and avoid the kind of ecological disasters that have occurred in other towns, such as the massive erosion into the Mill River in Williamsburg.

Board member Andrew MacDougall said he is a supporter of developing solar as soon as possible. He realizes Amherst needs a bylaw, but thought we could work on it without a moratorium. Janet McGowan wondered if the 18-month length of the temporary moratorium could be reduced and  the definition of large-scale projects that would be affected by the moratorium could be increased from one acre. She also asked if the town and colleges are looking into geothermal energy to replace fossil fuels. Planner Chris Brestrup said Amherst College used geothermal heating in the remodeling of the Inn at Boltwood, and Planning Board Chair Doug Marshall said UMass is actively looking into ways to reduce its fossil fuel use. Brestrup added that if the town were to do a solar assessment study, using a hired consultant, it would be unlikely that a solar bylaw could be developed in less than 18 months.

Roof has asserted that it would take 300 acres of solar fields to provide Amherst’s share of clean energy, but Marshall said that estimate was based on population. More densely populated areas in Eastern Massachusetts do not have the area to devote to solar arrays, so Western Massachusetts may have to supply more than its share of solar power.

Jack Jemsek said he gets “a little alarmed when a moratorium is pushed because of one project.”. He said it is especially odd when Amherst’s determination of solar projects has been successful in the past, with four projects already built. Maria Chao stated that she “never” likes moratoriums, and that they seem “reactionary.” She said that “we all agree that we need a solar assessment study and a bylaw, so we should move forward on that. A moratorium is not the way to proceed.”

Johanna Neumann agreed that we definitely need solar energy, and  said, “Let’s do the assessment and work on a bylaw,” but she is not convinced that we need a moratorium. She felt projects could proceed under existing guidelines, and added that technology is getting more efficient, and the same acreage yields 37% more power than it did 10 years ago.

Thom Long also thought the town can move forward in developing a bylaw without a moratorium. He said, “We have a short timeline. If we lose 18 months to a moratorium, we will have to alter the landscape even more to achieve our climate goals. There is an urgency here.”

Marshall said he is struggling to see how this is different from the proposed downtown moratorium on new buildings which failed to pass Town Council in June. Even though there are more ecological factors involved here, he doesn’t agree that we should “stop everything and plan.” “We now have a process that works, but let’s expedite a solar study and start working on a bylaw,” he said, adding that didn’t think one or two projects in the next 18 months would result in an “unmitigated disaster.” and that, given that it has taken a year “to do several minor [zoning] bylaws,” he is skeptical that we can develop a solar bylaw in 18 months.

Brestrup said the Planning Board, Conservation Commission, and ZBA are permitted to hire third-party experts to help clarify topics in which the town does not have expertise. She said a consultant for a solar assessment study would be one of those instances. Roof said that earlier in the day, the ECAC had approved a letter to the Planning Board that summarizes the presentation he gave last month and his column in the Gazette. Hanner said she could forward some articles on the importance of forests in reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

But the Planning Board was not interested in receiving more information before making their recommendation. They voted 4-3 (Marshall, MacDougall, and McGowan voting no) to close the hearing and then Neumann moved not to recommend the moratorium to the Town Council. This was seconded by Long. The question was called, so no more discussion occurred before the motion passed 5-2 (MacDougall and McGowan voting no). The Community Resources Committee of the Town Council will hold a public hearing on the moratorium on January 10 at 6:45 p.m.

Two Preliminary Subdivision Plans Continued Until January 5
John Wrobeleski filed a preliminary subdivision plan for his properties on 446 and 462 Main Street. He said he was still working out some of the details and asked that the matter be placed on the agenda for January 5. The Planning Board agreed unanimously to continue the hearing until 6:35 on January 5.

The much-delayed preliminary subdivision plan submitted by Archipelago Investments for 11-13 East Pleasant Street in June was also continued until January 5. Kyle Wilson of Archipelago again did not attend the meeting; instead, he sent a letter dated December 10 asking for the postponement. Brestrup said Wilson probably wants to wait to see if the mixed-use building amendment coming for a vote by the Town Council on December 20 passes. If the amendment adding additional requirements for developers fails, Wilson would probably withdraw their application. 

According to Town Attorney Joel Bard, even if the Planning Board rejects Archipelago’s preliminary subdivision plan, the company has until February 12 to meet the seven-month deadline for a definitive plan. Brestrup added that information about the project requested by the Planning Department in July has not been supplied by Archipelago yet.

Chao said it makes the most sense to continue the hearing and wait to see how the developer wants to proceed. Jemsek remarked that Brestrup and the Planning Board have had to do a lot of speaking on behalf of Wilson, who hasn’t come to the last two Planning Board meetings. Nevertheless, the board voted unanimously to continue the hearing to January 5 at 6:45.

Discussion About Planning Board Minutes Delayed Until Next Meeting
The packet from this meeting contains Amherst Planning Board minutes from 2007 and 2008, as well as examples of minutes from Greenfield, Northampton, and Easthampton. The idea of presenting these minutes is to provide a basis for the ongoing discussion about how much detail the minutes should contain,h which has been a matter of contention at some Planning Board meetings. However, McGowan, who has voiced many of the concerns about what constitutes good minutes, had to leave the meeting at 9:20, so the discussion was postponed until January 5.

Minutes from the September 14, November 17, and December 1, 2021 meetings were approved. McGowan had proposed extensive alterations to the draft of the July 14, 2021 minutes, so approval of this set was postponed until she could be present.

The meeting adjourned at 9:52 p.m. The next meeting of the Planning Board is January 5 at 6:30 p.m.

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