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Towns grapple with larger solar projects

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.”

Mark Silverberg, a member of the Planning Board, said he’s not opposed to extending the bylaw to residential areas, but said the board wants more public input, among other things.

“We felt it needed more study before we could do that. Quite a few people spoke against it,” Silverberg said. “We felt expanding it into residential zones really needed a separate public hearing and separate process.”

One man opposed to extending the bylaw to residential areas is Brian Wilkinson, who has received complaints from a neighbor about the look of his three arrays of solar panels, about 250 square feet each, outside his West Main Street home.

Wilkinson fears the space between each of his solar arrays would be included in the total square footage of his system, and would cause it to be prohibited if a residential bylaw were to take effect.

Local solar panel regulations “generally lead to increases in the cost of installing solar panels, more site plan review, more meetings at Town Hall, more paperwork and more landscaping,” Wilkinson said. “This takes something that is just becoming economical enough for people to do and removes it from the table.”

Wilkinson said his solar panels provide all the power he needs for his home.

“That’s a huge savings. That’s a $400 bill a month in the wintertime,” he said.

The bylaw is being proposed on the heels of a 15-acre solar panel project at Harvey’s Farm on Maple Avenue that was approved by the Board of Appeals Oct. 1, after receiving considerable public attention. The board voted 3-0 for a variance allowing the project in a residential zone.

But lengthy delays in the approval process nearly doomed the $10 million proposal, according to project manager Charles Jenkins, an independent energy consultant from North Andover.

“We were in jeopardy of losing our backer, who actually threatened to drop the project and walk away,” Jenkins said. “We’re fortunate the backer didn’t bail.”

However, developers will lose between $4 million and $5 million in federal green energy reimbursements because construction will not be completed by the end of the year, Jenkins said. The money would have come from an extension of the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he said.

The farm’s owner, Jim Harvey, said construction was anticipated to begin last March.

He said town planning officials weren’t prepared for a solar panel project, and were overly cautious after receiving numerous complaints about Carlstrom’s project on Fisher Street.

“They weren’t prepared for all of this,” Harvey said. “There’s a lot of catch-up going on. We were always sent in directions that weren’t real efficient.”

Harvey said it wasn’t until members of the Board of Appeals toured his property the day of the Oct. 1 meeting that they approved his project.

The solar array’s proposed location is near the rear of his 42-acre property, which abuts conservation land, Harvey said.

“It’s far away from everything. It was the most reasonable, logical place to site such a thing,” Harvey said of the solar panel farm. “There’s nothing bad about it.

“Towns are going to find out that when they get more tax money, help save farms, save electricity, and it does not make noise or pollute, that there’s nothing bad about it.”

The large number of solar panels will provide all of the energy for Harvey’s Farm, and the remaining energy will be sold to the regional energy grid operated by National Grid, Jenkins said.

The town will also receive energy credits that will lower the cost of energy for municipal buildings.

Jenkins, the energy consultant, said that in the last two years, he has had success in finding financially struggling farmers who are eager to allow money-generating solar panel systems on their land.

“We’ve found the response overwhelming. You find one farmer, and they have two more friends who are interested,” Jenkins said. “They need to maximize’’ their property “as best they can, so they don’t have to sell it, they can keep it going and stay on their land.”

Jenkins said he is involved in several projects on farms and open land in Stow and Framingham, as well as several communities in Central and Western Massachusetts, where open land is more plentiful.

“I have large hospitals in Boston just dying to get ahold of this energy, and I can’t bring it to them,” Jenkins said. “The open land is out further, but the demand is more toward Boston.”

Lusardi said her agency provides several guidelines for how cities and towns can develop bylaws that deal with construction of solar panel farms.

Some of those guidelines were adopted by Westborough’s Planning Board for its proposed bylaw, according to Silverberg.

“We looked at the bylaws of about 10 different towns,” the board member said. “We did use the state model but we expanded that. The state really dealt with kilowatts, and we felt there should be a size component too.”

Silverberg said he is expecting town officials will get a sense of the public’s opinion at Special Town Meeting, but still expects more discussion beyond that.

“A hundred years ago, people were probably not excited about telephone poles,’’ he said. “And now they’re a part of the landscape.”