Commercial Solar Bylaw – The Whole Story

Commercial Solar Bylaw – The Whole Story

The issue of ground-mounted photovoltaic commercial solar overlay in Hopkinton has been a source of a long and contentious debate for over a couple of years now. The following visual story is broken down by timeline and lays out all events, actions and plans pertaining to the Commercial Solar Bylaw for the 2021 Town Meeting. Along with these snippets, you will also find news article references and video links of discussions recorded by HCAM TV. 

For a quick summary of concerns that residents, land owners, town officials in Hopkinton have over this issue, please also see Stakeholder Concerns and Challenges surrounding Solar By-Laws in Hopkinton

Story Timeline

2021
05/2021

Town Meeting

Town Meeting Aerial View
Voters will decide at Town Meeting on Saturday, May 8 at 9:00 AM at the High School (outside)
03/2021

Planning Board approves amendments to the proposed Wilson Street Solar Array

Ground Mounted Solar

The Planning Board at their March 29, 2021 meeting voted 6-1 in favor of three respective amendments to the solar special permit and stormwater management permit for the proposed 2.4-megawatt solar array off Wilson Street.

03/2021

Planning Board Public Hearing (continued)

Planning Board 2020-21

A Planning Board public hearing was held on March 15th, 2021:

03/2021

Wilson Street solar company starting tree clearing

Solar Panels

The Conservation Commission at its meeting on Tuesday, March 9 voiced support for Grasshopper Energy to start clearing a limited number of trees as part of its plan to construct a 2.4 megawatt solar array off Wilson Street, but held off on approving larger pieces to the project until more information has been obtained.

03/2021

Planning Board Public Hearing

02/2021

Zoning Committee continues refining tree-cutting ByLaw after Town warrant is in place

Zoning Committee continues refining tree-cutting ByLaw after Town warrant is in place

After the Planning board initially reviewed the proposal, members said they were surprised that a new overlay district map wasn’t part of the proposal, and they pushed for the board to reconsider it. The Planning Board voted to hold spots for two commercial zoning articles on the Town Meeting warrant. One for the more aggressive screening rules proposed by ZAC and the other as a placeholder for the overlay district zoning with the understanding that it might be pulled out after further discussion. 

The Zoning Advisory Committee is continuing to work on strengthening the bylaw, by changing the percentage of the site area in residential and agricultural zones that can be cleared of trees, bringing it down from 40% to 20%, while leaving business and industrial zones at 70%.

The finished proposal will then be sent again to the Planning Board for further discussion.  The Planning Board hearing on this topic will be held on March 1st, 2021.

 


 

References: 

Feb 1, 2021 – Planning Board votes to hold Town Meeting spots for multiple proposed tree-cutting bylawFeb 18, 2021 – ZAC continues tree-cutting bylaw discussion, considers restricting site area alteration

01/2021

Zoning Committee settles on the final approach to the by-law

Zoning Committee settles on the final approach to the by-law
  • ZAC’s goal was to protect neighborhoods as well as the forests and rural habitat. The tree protection bylaw could be a zoning or general bylaw. Based on these primary goals and upon the advice from the town counsel, the committee started to look into a bylaw that would limit clear cutting of trees. This would apply to all industries or any type of land use including solar.    
  • Zoning Bylaws requires a 2/3rds majority vote at Town Meeting while General Bylaws require a simple 1/2+ majority. 
  • After these considerations, the committee began focusing on language changes to the by-law screening criteria and other measures that would better protect abutters and neighboring landowners.
  • Criteria included in the language are added to minimize impact on: 
    • Natural forests, scenic and historic resources
    • Removal of trees and destruction of habitat
    • Area noise, traffic, lighting, dust, fumes, odor 
    • Solar radiation or glare
    • Storm water run-off 

 

The committee finalized and voted to send it to the Planning Board.  

 


 

Video ReferenceView and listen to the proposed language for the by-laws

References: 

Jan 25, 2021 – Planning Board reconsiders best approach to commercial solar zoning 

01/2021

Why did the committee shift focus away from overlay district to screening and tree-cutting bylaws?

Why did the committee shift focus away from overlay district to screening and tree-cutting bylaws?

After the initial meetings, the committee had begun further researching and working on both approaches to send to the Planning Board for consideration. The Planning Board would then have more than one plan to consider for the final town warrant.

 

However, during the ZAC meeting on January 11th, the debate took a different turn when the town counsel advised against a solar overlay district bylaw. The main issues were:

  • The district bylaw would single out and target just solar and would not be broad enough for other types of development. The degree to which the land being cleared for solar is harmful to the environment but it could not be concluded that this same level of harm is not caused by any other type of commercial or residential development. 
  • In a recent decision in 2019, based on a proceeding, the chief justice of the land court basically rejected the idea altogether that one can prohibit solar in some districts and allow it in others.
  • Town Counsel said the overlay may not hold up in court and without any precedent, there is no way of definitively knowing.

 


 

Video ReferenceListen to the discussion against Solar Overlay

References: 

Dec 28, 2020 – ZAC solar zoning debate continues, with opinions split between overlay map or bylaw changes  • Jan 12, 2021 – Town counsel cautions ZAC on commercial solar restrictions; discussion to continue

2020
12/2020

The debate continues after Annual Town Meeting

The debate continues after Annual Town Meeting

After the zoning committee regrouped following the 2020 Annual Town meeting, the topic of solar district continued to remain an area of focus, especially coming from public voices. The committee debated over the approach to the solution after much research, including a white paper developed by Tufts for the town of Athol, where the research report states:

“these concerns are especially important in Athol because current zoning bylaws do not account for viewshed considerations, and tourism is significant to the region’s economy.”

 

The opinions of the committee after debate were split between 2 approaches:

  1. Continue the effort started in 2020 to develop an overlay district considering criteria such as lot sizes of minimum and maximum, % of previously disturbed lots and focusing on designated industrial areas around South St as well as Harvey and Interchange highways which are away from residential areas. 
  2. Focus on the sightlines and screening criteria alone, as it’s more likely to meet public health, safety and welfare criteria. 

 


 

References: 

Oct 20, 2020 – Solar zoning issues dominate ZAC public forum  • Dec 14, 2020 – ZAC solar zoning debate continues, with opinions split between overlay map or bylaw changes

09/2020

What happened at the 2020 Annual Town Meeting?

Annual Town Meeting Tent
  • Though the Planning Board had voted to include the articles for Annual Town Meeting, they suggested that residents take no action. There were concerns due to Covid and a limited crowd size was required during the pandemic. 
  • Residents who opposed the commercial solar arrays in residential areas hoped that the solar district map would help take immediate action to limit development.  
  • Despite the recommendation for inaction, the citizens group Save the Forest pushed for a vote to support the article, in an attempt to take action sooner and prevent clearing of lots for future solar arrays.
  • By a vote of 114-96, Town Meeting voted to take no action on Article 19, thereby encouraging more debate over public concerns and buying more time to rework the proposal.

 


 

References: 

Sept 12, 2020 – Town Meeting delays vote on Solar

08/2020

Legal Concerns Grow Over Town Warrant Article

Legal Concerns Grow Over Town Warrant Article

The Planning Board originally thought the Seaboard Solar project would be grandfathered in regardless of the overlay status. However, the Seaboard project would not be grandfathered in because the permit was issued much later, after the first published notice of the Planning Board public hearing on the zoning change in early 2020. According to the statute MGL Chapter 40A, Section 6, a new or changed zoning ordinance would negate any special permits if issued after public hearing notice. 

 

Gary Trendel, the Planning Board chair, considered three options leading upto the Annual Town Meeting in September 2020. 

  1. Allow the process to continue and leave the recommended article as is (in spite of risks negating the special permit already approved for Seaboard Solar’s project). 
  2. Consider a new hearing after reevaluating which parcels to include before September’s Town Meeting in 2020. 
  3. Withdraw the article from the town warrant and send it back to the Zoning Advisory Committee (ZAC) for further reevaluation, buying more time for due diligence so it can pass muster in court and in the Town meeting. 

 

The board voted by majority to leave the proposed solar overlay district as is on the Town Meeting warrant and went with option 1.

 


 

References: 

July 28, 2020 – Town counsel raises concerns with Planning Board’s solar overlay map  • Aug 18, 2020 – Planning Board keeps all articles, including solar map, on warrant for Town Meeting

07/2020

Complexities leading up to 2020 Annual Town Meeting

Complexities leading up to 2020 Annual Town Meeting

Seaboard Solar’s project to develop 28 acres of land off 71 Frankland Rd, got approved by the planning board, after the company stated plans to put a conservation restriction in place for donating about 40 acres of undeveloped open space that includes trails and a small lake. However, the proposed overlay district does not cover this portion of land. So, if the zoning map were to be included in the town warrant to be voted on, it would invalidate the initial approval of Seaboard’s project.

 

As of date, Seaboard Solar has not yet put the conservation restriction in place. Recently, when the company applied for DCR Forest cutting permit, it left town officials and residents surprised as they had no prior knowledge of this or contact with the company since mid-December.  Permitting from DCR takes the town out of the approval process. Under the previous agreement with the town, about 48 acres of land was to be handed over to Hopkinton Area Land Trust (HALT) for preservation.

 


 

References: 

July 28, 2020 – Planning Board approves Frankland Road solar special permitJan 18, 2020 – Seaboard Solar surprises town by applying for DCR forest-cutting permit

03/2020

Proposal of solar overlay district in early 2020

Proposal of solar overlay district in early 2020

In the town’s zoning by-law, solar installations could happen anywhere in the town as long as the screening and setback restrictions were fulfilled by the solar company. A zoning map was proposed to restrict any future solar overlays to designated land parcels, where these would still require special permits from the Planning Board and Conservation Commission. Projects that were not included in the overlay district would require a two-thirds vote at the Annual Town Meeting. 

 

The goal was to minimize the impact of deforestation and protect the rights of residents and landowners in neighborhoods close to the solar arrays being installed.

 

After the initial map was introduced, debate started growing after additional parcels were requested to be added by property owners so they may use their land for solar farming. These included several additional parcels close to the Charlesview Estates neighborhood, which raised the alarm for residents there.

 


 

References: 

March 29, 2020 – Planning Board works to establish commercial solar district 

2017
10/2017

Issues on Solar farms began to surface in 2017

Ground Mounted Solar

As early as October 2017, neighbors had voiced opposition to the installation of a 11.4 acre solar array off 147 Lumber Street which abuts the Charlesview Neighborhood. Shortly thereafter in June 2018, neighbors had voiced opposition to the installation of a solar array on 34 acres of land off Wilson Street. Due to court orders after an appeal by the company TJA Clean Energy, the Planning Board reluctantly voted to approve the project in 2019, in order to avoid any costly legal expenses borne by the town. Later in 2019 a 14.2 acre solar array at Wood Street/Mechanic Street was approved by the Planning Board.

 

Concerns grew again in 2020, with Seaboard Solar’s plan to acquire Liberty Mutual’s entire 68-acre parcel for installation of the solar arrays on a portion of the land. The project plan included plans to clear 27 acres of rich forest and habitat, which was a major area of concern for town residents and committee officials.

 


References: 

October 17, 2017 – Hopkinton: Solar panels spark debate  •  March 6, 2019 – Court sends denied solar permit back to Planning BoardMarch 20, 2019 – Despite court order, solar permit still in limbo • April 3, 2019 –Solar farm off Wilson Street approved • March 11, 2020 – Residents concerned about solar farm plan



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