Towns grapple with larger solar projects
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More communities than ever are trying to balance an increasing number of green energy projects with residents who don’t like looking at rows of large solar panels from their homes — and Westborough is just the latest example.
At next week’s Special Town Meeting, residents will decide on a bylaw that would regulate the placing of large-scale, ground-mounted solar panels in commercial and industrial zones, or on municipal or state property.
“No one in town opposes solar energy,” said town planner Jim Robbins. “It became a concern of how these things look and impact the view of abutting properties, and how do we mitigate this.”
Robbins and other Westborough officials received numerous complaints about the unsightliness of the panels and the cutting down of several trees earlier this year for a large solar array on Fisher Street, in an industrial zone where the town had no control over the project.
A large-scale solar panel is defined in the proposed bylaw as being structurally mounted to the ground, as opposed to a rooftop; and with an area greater than 1,000 square feet or with a minimum power-generating capacity of 250 kilowatts.
Deb Schradeick, a local realtor and member of the town’s Design Review Board, launched several complaints about the Fisher Street project and wrote about it in a local blog.
“I was shocked because it changed the streetscape pretty dramatically,” Schradeick told the Globe. “It’s practically up against the curb. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be able to [install solar panels] but there needs to be some regulation.”
Schradeick said trees that had provided a visual buffer to the former Carlstrom Pressed Metal facility were cut down to make way for the solar panels, which are across the street from houses that border the industrial zone.
David Carlstrom, owner of the facility, said he has installed a chain-link fence and black fabric, similar to what is used in tennis courts, to block the view of the solar panels after receiving a request from the town.
“The land is industrially zoned and we’ve complied with all the procedures,” said Carlstrom, declining to address specific complaints from residents. “Becoming energy independent is important to us and we’re proud of it.”
Carlstrom said his business has been in Westborough for more than 60 years, and is a “valuable part of the community.” He said no one has complained to him directly about the solar panels.
Westborough is not the only community to address large solar panel installations.
Shrewsbury’s Town Meeting passed a bylaw last spring that allows large-scale solar projects in some, but not all, industrial and commercial zones.
“We were being approached by many solar developers and we’ve taken cues from other communities that enacted solar bylaws,” said Kristen Las, Shrewsbury’s town planner. “We chose not to have it in the commercial/business district because a majority of [the district] is along Route 9, and we’d rather see businesses along Route 9 than solar panels.”
“Each municipality has its own unique culture, and we need to respect that,” said Meg Lusardi, director of the Green Communities Division in the state’s Department of Energy Resources, which each year awards grants to municipalities for renewable-energy projects.
“It’s really about having champions within a community that want to take these things on,” Lusardi said. “It’s a lot of education and outreach and getting the community organized.”
In Westborough, the proposed solar panel bylaw, which will appear as Article 19 on Monday’s Special Town Meeting warrant, sets criteria for the projects, such as only allowing large solar panels in industrial and commercial zones if the system is 25 to 100 feet away from the property line.
The proposed bylaw does not address constructing large panels in residential areas. Small solar panels, commonly seen on the rooftops of homes, are allowed, but a large-scale residential solar project would require a zoning variance from the town’s Board of Appeals, and the new bylaw would not change that.
Town Manager Jim Malloy called the lack of a residential provision “the only drawback” that he and Westborough’s selectmen see with the bylaw, which they support.
Malloy said the selectmen wanted to make it easier to set up solar projects on large pieces of land in residential zones.
“The Board of Selectmen felt there should be a provision to address large residential properties . . . where solar farms would be unobtrusive and have a benefit,” Malloy said. “The selectmen felt it should be addressed all at once.”Continued...