Tweaked solar bylaw amendment petition heads to Town Meeting

By Andrea Ray | Oct 10, 2017
Photo by: Andrea Ray

Rochester — A group of Rochester citizens, aiming to preserve some of Rochester's scenic vistas, will present an amendment to one of the town's solar farm bylaws at the town's October 23 Special Town Meeting.

The town’s Planning Board assisted petitioners in rephrasing the amendment proposal. Members noted that rephrasing the petition would likely increase the chances of the petition being approved by the Massachusetts Attorney General, should it pass at Town Meeting.

The amendment, which was added to the Town Meeting agenda as the result of a citizen petition, attempts to preserve some of Rochester's rural character from being developed, rather than banning solar farms altogether, members of the group explained to the Planning Board during a public hearing on October 10.

Rochester currently has seven large-scale solar farms, some of which are hidden by woods. Others, such as Meadowatt on Marion Road (Route 6), and a proposed solar farm on Mendell Road, have drawn the ire of Rochester residents due to their highly visible nature on main roads. Residents made it clear that they felt the presence of solar farms will wipe away the rural character of Rochester.

Sarah Johnston, of 120 Marion Road, introduced the proposal to the Planning Board on October 10. As originally submitted, she explained, the amendment would ban large-scale, ground-mounted solar panels from within 1,000 feet of any scenic highway in Rochester. "We're trying to keep our agricultural scenery as open to the public as possible," she explained.

Planning Board Chairman Arnie Johnson had previously noted his reluctance to back the petition in an earlier Board of Selectmen Meeting. "One-thousand feet is too much," he said. "I have no doubt it would pass at town meeting, and I’m personally for the idea, but the Attorney General would never accept it." All articles passed at Town Meetings throughout the state are reviewed and given ultimate approval by the Massachusetts Attorney General.

Johnston explained that the petitioners were willing to cut the setback requirement to 500 feet, but Johnson believed the number would still be objectionable to the Attorney General.

Instead, he had a different idea.

Johnson proposed an change to the amendment's wording that, he said, Rochester Town Counsel Blair Bailey had approved of: "Why not just change the wording to make it outright ban ground-mounted solar panels from any lot fronting a scenic highway?"

"Can we do that?" Johnston asked. "That's more severe than what we were going for."

Johnson explained that Bailey had been opposed to the original wording on the basis that the 1,000 foot setback was an arbitrary number, which couldn't be defended. He explained that the outright ban was cleaner, because there was no gray area in which developers could ask for an exception to the setback distance. It would also be more helpful to voters, he pointed out, who wouldn't be out with a measuring tape measuring their property.

Currently there is only one scenic highway in Rochester - Route 105. The amendment would only apply to that road. But, Johnson noted, another group has been attempting to get 37 more roads in the town named as scenic highways, a measure that would need to pass at a future Town Meeting. "There's a possibility there for solar farms to be banned from a lot more of the town," Lee Carr pointed out. "Should the wording refer specifically to Route 105?"

Johnson shook his head. "Leave the wording 'scenic highway'," he said. "It's only Route 105 right now. The townspeople can decide if they want more scenic highways later."

Carr wondered if the amendment tweaks might mean that a developer could subdivide into several smaller lots, rather than one large one, and keep the solar panels in the back lots. Currently, lots in agricultural/residential areas of Rochester are required to be 2 acres, with 225 feet of frontage.

"I've been here 18 years," Johnson said. "Somebody's always going to try and find a way to sneak around the bylaws. It's inevitable. But this might force people away from Route 105, because it adds extra complications."

The Planning Board unanimously agreed to stand in favor of the amended proposal.  The amendment will next be presented (in its new form) at Town Meeting, where voters will decide whether to pass it or not.

Rochester Town Planner Charles Starret noted that, even if the amendment is passed by Town Meeting voters and the Attorney General, it will not affect any solar farms already seeking Planning Board decisions, which includes the proposed solar farm abutting Mendell and Rounseville Roads.

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