I am responding to the letter sent to all Town Meeting members from the Select Board chair regarding the board’s unanimous decision to “not” recommend the adoption of the resident petition solar bylaw article. I would also like to respond to Select Board member William Trimble’s April 3, Standard-Times letter (“Reject bylaw proposals for Dartmouth solar projects”).
For background, the Select Board and Alternative Energy Committee originally co-sponsored the large scale solar bylaw last June. Neither group spoke at Town Meeting regarding this bylaw. I understood the bylaw related to Dartmouth qualifying as a Massachusetts Green Community, from watching the executive administrator’s DCTV interview aired prior to Town Meeting. Unfortunately, the “cart was placed before the horse” last June. Rather than educate Town Meeting on the five requirements that must be met to qualify as a Green Community and the related costs and benefits, a bylaw was instead prematurely presented for adoption.
The first of the five criteria listed by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources is to provide as-of-right zoning in “designated locations” for renewable or alternative energy facilities. A town can select any or all of the following: large scale generating, R&D or manufacturing. Both the Select Board’s June 2011 bylaw, as well as its June 2012 proposed amendment, allows commercial-size generating facilities “as-of-right in all zones.”
The Select Board is concerned that the residents’ amendment to prohibit such projects in residential zones violates Massachusetts General Law Chapter 40A, Sec. 3. This section states: “no zoning ordinance or bylaw shall prohibit or unreasonably regulate the installation of solar energy systems or the building of structures that facilitate the collection of solar energy, except where necessary to protect the public health, safety or welfare.”
Mr. Trimble’s letter states his belief that the residents’ amendment “will be struck down by the attorney general.” What he and his board have failed to communicate is that municipalities are not mandated to become Green Communities, nor are they mandated to designate their whole city/town. In fact the DOER website lists 25 Green Communities that have designated locations for large scale solar generation.
For example Arlington, Lexington, Medway and Mashpee have designated only their “industrial zones.” Others, such as Kingston and Lincoln, have created overlay districts. Still other communities, not yet qualified as “Green” (such as Carver) are currently trying to create bylaws to be in the best interest of their residents.
Communities are tailoring their bylaws to meet their own needs, while still qualifying as “green” under the state’s criteria. Were the bylaws of all these communities “struck down” by the AG’s office as being in violation of the General Laws? I think not. The Select Board is offering its own interpretation of the law.
Mr. Trimble also wrote that the original bylaw was “drafted to conform to a model bylaw provided by the Commonwealth.” He is referring to the DOER’s model bylaw. To quote notations from the state model bylaw: “DOER encourages locations in industrial and commercial districts, or on vacant disturbed land. DOER strongly discourages designating locations that require significant tree cutting, because of the important water management, cooling and climate benefits trees have.”
The Select Board’s bylaw doesn’t follow the DOER recommendations. In fact the three current projects in residential zones are requiring massive tree clearing. Hixville Village (25 acres, 67 percent forest), High Hill Road (19 acres, 95 percent forest) and Fisher Road (44 acres, 70 percent forest).
On April 7, The Standard-Times reported the concerns of researchers from Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution who have looked at years of research on the capacity of Massachusetts forests to store heat-trapping greenhouse gas: “There are all these technologies for reducing carbon and here we have trees that are just doing it for us. It’s a cheap and really effective way to deal with climate change.” I applaud Michael O’Reilly for recommending that the Conservation Commission wait for an outside forestry report as well as a hazardous report from the DEP, to understand the potential impacts of the large wetland clearing proposed by the High Hill project.
Additionally, “as-of-right” means projects may proceed “without” the need for a special permit, variance, amendment or waiver from zoning bylaws. Projects can no longer be prohibited. Residents’ public hearing notification rights have changed. Under as-of-right, abutters within 100 feet are notified “only to discuss wetlands.” Previously under a special permit application, abutters within 300 feet would have been notified of a hearing to discuss “any” concerns.
The Select Board’s June amendment proposes a site plan review, to be performed by the Planning Board. However, they may not have the legal ability to prohibit an as-of-right plan, but rather only impose reasonable conditions. The Planning Board’s authority will be limited to buffers, setbacks, signage, lighting, etc.
The current bylaw imposes a significant policy change, doesn’t limit the location, number, or size of projects allowed, nor does it constitute a truly green initiative.
Gloria Bancroft lives in Dartmouth.
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