| Amy Porter
BLANDFORD – When Blandford passed a one-year moratorium on new ground-mounted solar installations at a Special Town Meeting on Aug. 5 of last year, the planning board said they were being overwhelmed by calls.
“We needed to catch our breath,” said Richard Barnard, chair of Blandford’s planning board.
He said at the time that the town needed to get their bylaws in order for the new industry, so they did not contradict existing laws. They also needed to look at the difference between a million dollar solar farm versus a household array; between commercial and residential ground-mounted.
Barnard stressed that the planning board is an all-volunteer board, some elected, all unpaid.
Catching up with him in January, Barnard said the review was going well. He said the town has hired an attorney to work with the planning board and zoning board of appeals to get their bylaws up to date on signage, solar and marijuana.
“They haven’t been revised in several years,” he said.
Recapping the reason for the moratorium, Barnard said they have two large-scale solar arrays about to go online, and two others coming up this year, all of which got in before the moratorium. A fifth array that was also approved is working out some issues with the Department of Environmental Protection, he said.
“We were getting overwhelmed,” he said. One of the problems the town was facing, was that the companies were clearing land for the solar arrays. Barnard said the new bylaws will protect forested land. “The site can’t be all timber, and must have open space.”
Barnard said the bylaw review is going to take time, but the boards are hoping to get a portion of the changes on the Annual Town Meeting in May. They then plan on another year of bylaw changes.
“We’re working on the solar. Whether we can get it completed or not is another story.”
Barnard said the bylaws cover all-ground mounted solar. “Private roof installation don’t require a special permit. It all depends on wattage and output. We need to get it fine-tuned and spelled out,” he said.
Barnard also said with just the changes they’ve recommended so far, the next challenge will be to get residents to read them. He said they hope to have informational meetings for the public before the vote in May.
“They weren’t the only town out there faced with the same issues,” said Eric Weiss, Regional and Municipal Program Manager for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, about Blandford. Weiss said during the moratorium, PVPC is helping the town’s planning board and zoning board with new bylaws.
PVPC has also begun a solar working group for area communities under Weiss’ leadership, and is providing technical assistance and bringing together towns challenged by large-scale solar array siting. Blandford, Belchertown, Easthampton, Williamsburg, Wilbraham, Northampton, Hadley, East Longmeadow and Westhampton are some of the communities that have participated to date.
“We’re bringing towns together,” Weiss said. Working-group discussions have revolved around challenges and best practices. Weiss said the land available in Western Mass. is attractive to developers, and local regulations are being challenged by large-scale investments.
“These are multi-million investments going in; a totally different animal,” he said.
Weiss said when the state created a new solar incentive program called the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) in September of 2018. It created opportunities for development, and companies looked to site arrays all over the state.
Particularly attractive for investors were the multiple small towns from Worcester on west. Many of those towns were not prepared for the companies coming in with $5 and $10 million proposals.
Of particular concern to the towns is land use, and the effects on the area. “It’s great to have solar; we are trying to make energy greener. The SMART program had a great intent, but nobody measured the effects,” Weiss said.
According to Weiss, PVPC is the only organization in Hampshire and Hampden counties that is working on this through its solar working group. Their goal is to produce model bylaws and protections as a resource for the towns to model.
“It’s really interesting to work together to solve these problems. I’m happy to facilitate,” Weiss said, adding that the group will continue their work for the next couple of months.
Barnard said he has participated in the solar working group on behalf of Blandford. “We’ve gotten a lot of information from Hadley and Williamsburg about what we needed to do regarding precautions and restrictions,” he said.
Barnard agreed that most towns are facing the same issues. “Eric has pretty good insight. He works with the roundtable, where all the towns get together. I’m glad he does,” he said.
“The moratorium gave us a little breathing room through the winter,” Barnard said.
Now though, the planning board is getting a lot of calls from companies interested in marijuana cultivation. Although the town’s marijuana bylaws just went into effect last year, like the solar bylaws, they found out there were problems.
“My biggest concern is getting the bylaws up to date,” Barnard said, adding, “Marijuana is the next to tackle.”