NEWBURYPORT – The road to “green” can be an unfamiliar landscape. Alternative energy solutions to traditional fossil fuel, such as wind and solar, have brought in their wake looming steel towers, complete with spiral blades and a glistening mosaic of graphite-tinted rectangles carpeting tracts of land.
The transition can be a challenge for many cities and towns, especially those without zoning laws in place to accommodate such development.
Many communities are still trying to come up with the right balance to meet these zoning demands: how to preserve a community’s natural resources or character and yet meet the demands of broadening its tax base with the revenue that alternative energy development promises.
Newbury is one example.
Recently, the Board of Selectmen rejected a plan to build a solar farm that would be made up of more than 14,000 solar panels covering about 15 acres on the 72-acre Pikul Farm site. A section of that land falls within the historically notable Common Pasture, agricultural land dating back to Colonial times and revered for its scenic and environmental significance.
According to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the state’s zoning statue regarding solar photovoltaic “is subject to interpretation.” And the Department of Energy Resources goes on to say that, although it has a model bylaw “for large-scale ground-mounted solar PV and we continue to encourage municipalities to have zoning in place … some municipalities have bylaws in place for solar PV, some do not (Newbury appears not to).”
But that is about to change.
Newbury Town Planner Martha Taylor says the Planning Board is proposing a bylaw for ground-mounted solar PV installations, which they have recommended to be on the warrant for Town Meeting.
The proposed zoning includes three tiers of permitting:
* If the installation is less than a quarter of an acre it would by right;
* If a quarter of an acre to two acres it would be subject to site plan review;
* And, anything over two acres would be allowed by special permit.
“The by-law as proposed has this set of criteria that takes into consideration various aspects of things that relate to the public health, safety and welfare,” says Taylor.
The neighboring town of Salisbury took steps to have a solar zoning bylaw in place after the Green Communities Act was legislated in 2008. The state measure’s intent is to “boost energy and efficiency and encourage investment in renewable energy.” But Salisbury officials didn’t anticipate events that would amend their zoning plans to include land that had been initially approved for an industrial park development.
That property, owned by James Vaughn, is now the site of some 30,000 solar panels spread over more than 40 acres of a 54-acre site off Rabbit Road.
Originally, says Salisbury Planning Director Lisa Pearson, the town’s solar zoning by-law was slated for R1 and R2 use – residential, not commercial. And there was also a concern about the forested nature of the Vaughn site.
“He had to cut down quite a bit of trees in order to do it and it was required that somebody analyze that and determine that they only took down what was necessary.”
Pearson also points to Newburyport’s wind turbine as an example of a zoning decision made after the fact of its installation. “We wanted to make sure that before anybody came in to do something, that we had looked at the sites and had figured out the best places for wind (turbines) to be and (also) solar.”
“That’s how zoning works,” says Pearson. “If you don’t have something that regulates (it), then it just falls under another category of the zoning in order to sort of regulate where you would put it. Without it (a zoning by-law) it could go anywhere—quickly.”
Newbury Planner Taylor declined to comment specifically about the Pikul proposal. According to Town Counsel Ginny Kremer, selectmen have 90 days from the April 23hearing to issue their decision, which then must be filed with the Town Clerk within 14 days.
Voters in Newbury will have a chance to weigh in on the issue at own Meeting on May 21.