Proposals to restrict solar likely too late for fall Town Meeting

By Andrea Ray | Aug 08, 2017
Photo by: Georgia Sparling

Rochester — A group of Rochester residents had planned to present tighter restrictions on solar farms for consideration at October's Town Meeting, but it's likely too late to get a proposal on the fall agenda.

Petitioners attended the Planning Board's Monday meeting to express concern about a solar farm proposed at the intersection of Mendell and Rounseville Road. Borrego Solar representatives are looking to erect 9,000 solar panels on 13 acres of the 67-acre property. The proposal also includes clearing seven acres of trees to make room for a berm and an eight-foot fence around the property.

The discussion on the project was delayed until a future meeting, at the request of Borrego Solar representatives. Planning Board Chair Arnie Johnson, in recognizing petitioners in attendance, took the opportunity to explain the lengthy, somewhat complicated process required to get an update to the solar farm bylaw on the Town Meeting agenda.

Johnson said the board has received two separate petitions requesting changes to the existing bylaw.

"Normally, the Planning Board or [petitioners] would get together and craft a proposal for a bylaw or bylaw revision," he said.

The proposal would then be run by the town's attorney, Blair Bailey, to ensure that it was legally acceptable. Then, the proposal would need to be presented to the Board of Selectmen.

When citizens petition a bylaw change or revision, they are required to present it to the Selectmen themselves. No changes to the proposal can be made after the Selectmen's review.

In the case of solar farms, the Planning Board would need to hold a public hearing on the bylaw change. The hearing must be advertised for two consecutive weeks in a newspaper before the hearing can legally be held.

"Unfortunately, with the meeting schedule I've seen proposed, there just isn't enough time to get everything in," Johnson said.

The public hearing must be held within 65 days of the Town Meeting. If it isn't, "the whole thing is moot," Johnson said. "There just is not enough time to get a bylaw or a revision in for this Town Meeting."

Bailey, the town's attorney, also noted that bylaws or revisions passed at Town Meeting then need to be reviewed by the state Attorney General.

"The Attorney General tells us if what we passed is acceptable," Bailey explained. "Sometimes it's fine, sometimes we need to remove parts of the bylaw, and sometimes we're told we can't do it."

Bailey cited a previous solar bylaw proposal, in which the town had attempted to restrict incoming solar farms to Rochester's industrial district.

"I realize other towns have that bylaw," he said. "But Rochester's industrial district is so small that restricting solar farms to it was basically outlawing them from Rochester. The Attorney General would have considered it unreasonable, and would have thrown that bylaw out entirely."

Dale Bindas, of 14 Mendell Road, remained hopeful that the town could stop solar farms.

"The state can’t say we’re anti-solar -- the town has granted 122 solar permits, three of them major farms, others roof-mounted," he said. "How many do we need to put in? At some point we need to stand our ground and make the state give us an answer. Maybe the people targeting this town because of our bylaws might get the message that we’re fighting back.”

Johnson, however, noted that the town's solar farm bylaw is among the strictest in the area.

"We have, despite what you think, one of the strongest solar bylaws in the tri-town area," Johnson replied. "We had the first in the tri-town area. The fees and bonds required so that we don’t end up with scrapyards are not in any other tri-town bylaws. You’re picking and choosing on bylaws."

He cautioned: "If you end up taking this to court, the court could order the solar farm [to be built] without any input from the Planning Board. They wouldn't need to do anything we say, whereas at the moment we can impose restrictions. Think it all the way through."

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.