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Great Barrington calls for a solar bylaw

GREAT BARRINGTON – Town officials are looking to have a bylaw in place by May 2012 that would restrict large-scale solar projects.

The Select Board has directed Town Manager Kevin O’Donnell to work with the Planning Board to craft a bylaw addressing large-scale commercial solar projects and where in town they could be constructed. The goal, according to board members, is to have the matter on the warrant of the 2012 annual town meeting.

The inquiry comes on the heels of Darien, Conn.-based CTC Electric’s presentation of a conceptual plan to building a 3- to 4-megawatt solar facility on agricultural parcels totaling 67 acres along Seekonk and Round Hill roads. A total of 19 acres would have to be fenced off for the array, which could produce enough energy for 500 homes, according to CTC.

While the town works on the zoning changes, O’Donnell said, there are a number of hurdles CTC will likely face that would prevent it from gaining approval before the bylaw potentially goes into effect. Those permitting impediments could include a state Environmental Protection Act review, a Wetlands Protection Act review by the Conservation Commission and site plan review by the Planning Board.

State law prevents unreasonable zoning restrictions on solar projects except for the purpose of protecting “public health, safety or welfare.”

CTC gave a preliminary review of its project to the Planning Board in November, though the company has not submitted any formal proposal. But even the preliminary report has drawn scorn from town officials and abutters who say it would take away from the scenic beauty of the area and would result in the loss of prime farm land.

But CTC and the property owner do have options, including freezing zoning by subdividing the land.

CTC CEO Eric Roddy declined to comment on the situation beyond saying, “As everyone is aware, we’re working proactively with the town. But beyond that, we have no comment at this point.”

Roddy also declined to confirm that CTC would still be going before Planning Board on Dec. 8 – the date it previously said it intended to make its formal presentation.

But when a bylaw could be ready to go before voters remains unclear. Jonathan Hanken, Planning Board chairman, said the board has a full agenda for its upcoming meetings and the earliest time to discuss the matter will come in January.

It also will be more complicated than simply putting together overlay districts, according to Hanken.

“That’s how zoning works; that’s not how solar works – for solar you need certain physical attributes,” said Hanken.

Abutters to the proposed CTC site continued to speak out against the plan at Monday’s Selectmen’s meeting. One resident said it would be the “beginning of the end of our town.”

Selectwoman Alana Chernila who, at Monday’s meeting, said she was “disturbed” by the direction the conversation was going in, told The Eagle that discussions of a new bylaw should also be an opportunity to re-affirm the town’s commitment to renewable energy.

“We need to prioritize renewable energy in our community as these things are coming up,” said Chernila. “It’s entirely possible that this project might not be in the right place, but I want to make sure we’re coming at it backed by that vision of becoming more energy-independent as a community.”