Rochester residents want solar bylaw changes

By Tanner Harding | Sep 12, 2017

Rochester — Frustrated that officials have virtually no say in where solar farms can be built, some Rochester residents, worried about maintaining the town's rural character, are calling for an update to the bylaw regulating the projects.

A Planning Board public hearing on Tuesday for a solar farm on Rounseville Road quickly turned into a discussion about the town's obligation to approve the proposal.

Borrego Solar Systems, Inc. has proposed clear-cutting seven acres of trees for a berm, erecting an eight-foot fence and putting up 9,000 solar panels over 13 acres of ground on the 67-acre property.

“Everything I read about Rochester’s Master Plan basically says we shouldn’t be doing anything like this,” one resident said. “We’re not against solar, this is just the wrong spot. That’s all I’m saying.”

Covering a 10-year period, Master Plans address a community's goals for land use, housing, climate change, economic development, services and facilities, transportation, open space and recreation, and natural and cultural resources. Rochester's latest one was completed in 2009.

Planning Board Chair Arnie Johnson noted that the Master Plan was drafted before officials really started thinking of Rochester as a desirable location for alternative energy sources.

"This particular plan was written before solar, before windmills, before all that stuff came into play," he said. "My own personal feeling is [the project] would be best suited on a different site, but I’m not sure I can say 'no' based on that presumption."

When residents asked him to clarify, Johnson explained the Planning Board's role in approving the projects.

“Our personal opinions have to be put aside,” he said. “We’re governed by the rules and bylaws. The Master Plan doesn’t have any legalities, it’s a general guiding philosophy.”

Johnson has noted that denying a project that adheres to the town's bylaws would almost certainly lead to a lengthy, costly legal battle -- that could end with the town having no say in the project at all.  In approving a project, the Planning Board can require, among other things, that panels be obscured by trees and fencing.

Resident Kimberly Bindas wondered about a recent citizen's petition submitted against the Borrego Solar project. The petition also suggested bylaw changes.

“Will the [Planning Board] or Board of Selectmen consider the proposed revision to the bylaw that was submitted?” Bindas asked. “Why is it still just sitting and not being acknowledged?

Johnson said that the board had acknowledged the petition, but that acting on it was not as simple.

“Our town counsel says we can’t just outright deny [the project],” he said. “Personally, if he tells me we can’t do that then I don’t care if there are 10,000 signatures on that petition, I won’t deny it. The board will take up making changes to our solar bylaw but we won’t make it for Fall Town Meeting. It’ll be at the annual meeting in May or June for next year.”

Johnson also suggested that instead of having two groups trying to work on solar bylaw changes, it would make more sense to work together.

“Maybe we can form a working committee. I would encourage that,” he told Bindas. “We have a zoning bylaw subcommittee. You made good points and they won’t be lost.”

Resident Paul Stubbs asked if a moratorium on solar projects in historic or scenic spots in town would be possible.

“This stuff is coming in quickly. Is there some way of putting [projects] on hold until we can go to Town Meeting and figure it out?” Stubbs asked.

Johnson wasn’t sure of the answer, but agreed it was a good question to ask.

Even if the bylaw were updated immediately, any current applications for projects would be subject to the current bylaw.

Ultimately, the hearing was continued until the Planning Board's next meeting, but not before member Ben Bailey reminded residents that solar panels may be more favorable to residents than other projects.

"If you let us get this done and completely screen it," he said, "it’s better than 40B housing."

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