HOLLISTON – In a swift change of plans Thursday night, the Planning Board and about 30 residents dropped talks of cutting down historic trees and discussed whether a Bullard Street solar farm would be allowed under state and local zoning laws.
The board changed gears Thursday night because one board member was absent and would have lost voting rights in the board’s decision about the trees.
Instead, attorneys from the town and the developer disagreed over whether the proposed solar farm qualifies as a public utility, which local zoning bylaws allow in all areas, including residential/agricultural zones like Bullard Street.
If the town wants to consider the project a solar facility, developer Renewable Energy Massachusetts’s attorney Robert Orsi said, it would be allowed under a state statute that prohibits communities from prohibiting or unreasonably regulating solar energy systems.
But because that law was created 30 years ago, opponents argued it doesn’t apply to large-scale solar projects like this one.
“I do not believe that shoving this down the town’s throat under Chapter 40a Section 3 goes along with what the state was thinking,” said resident Marty Lamb, opposing the project.
“Solar energy, it’s clearly favored by the Legislature,’’ Orsi said.
The town’s attorney, Mark Bobrowski said because laws are vague, officials have the power to interpret the law several different ways as they like.
“My best advice to you would be, in sum, are you in favor of the proposal or not?” Bobrowski said.
Further complicating matters, the local zoning bylaw stipulates that energy generated by a public utility be used “within the district,” or within the town.
The Planning Board Thursday night asked developers how they can prove where electricity, once it is sold back to the grid, is ultimately used. They asked for an NStar representative to attend the continuation of the hearing on Feb. 16, to explain where the electricity will go.
Also, as the meeting proceeded, residents wanted to know whether the developer would compensate neighbors if their property values decrease because of the facility. The developer said no.
They also wanted to know whether firefighters are trained to put out fires in solar farms and what would happen during a hurricane or heavy storm.
Others asked about a farm’s potential to harm drinking water in nearby well two, located behind 121 Bullard St. Developers last night insisted the project poses no health or safety risks.
Board Chairman Jack Donovan asked that at next month’s meeting the developers provide a technical explanation of the inverter facility as well as information from the town assessor about whether the developer would be able to pay a special annual payment in lieu of property tax.