A new committee formed to write local rules for solar energy development in Carver is divided over how severely such projects can be restricted in this largely rural town, which has seen a raft of proposals over the past year.
Meeting for the first time last week, the group discussed a plan proposed by neighbors of a controversial North Carver solar project to restrict solar installations to industrial zoning districts, but could not come to an agreement.
The residents put their proposal in the form of a petition designed to force Town Meeting to act on the issue. The petition fell short of the number of signatures needed to call a special Town Meeting, but its nearly 200 signatures prompted selectmen to form a solar bylaw committee to consider the issue and also to place the residents’ proposed bylaw before a previously scheduled special Town Meeting on Feb. 27.
“The group discussed the petition article to see if they could support it or amend it,’’ said town planner Jack Hunter after the Monday meeting. “They did not come to any conclusions.’’
The problem with restricting solar energy projects to industrial zones is that these areas “are already too occupied,’’ Hunter said. The committee will meet again on Wednesday to see whether it can reach agreement before the Feb. 27 special Town Meeting on whether to support the petition article, amend it, or oppose it.
Where to site solar projects is an important issue for Carver because town planners have already approved four projects, and officials expect more to come in a town where cranberry growers have been looking for new uses for their land. A proposed tax break to pave the way for a large solar project near Route 44 in North Carver will go before the upcoming Town Meeting.
Eric Tobolski, a resident of another North Carver neighborhood affected by a proposal to build a 7-acre solar farm on a site excavated for a cranberry bog, said he drafted the bylaw petition by “building on the existing town bylaws about where industry can be located.’’ He contends that since solar projects are an industrial use, they should be limited to industrial zones.
Advocates for solar energy, on the other hand, argue that solar is a renewable energy resource that has much less impact on its surroundings than conventional power plants and should not be considered a true industrial use.
Homeowners in a small neighborhood off Purchase Street were shocked last fall to find a large solar array planned for a site excavated as a cranberry bog near their homes. They turned out at Planning Board hearings to oppose the plan, saying they had been told they would be living next to a cranberry bog, not a solar project.
Responding to their concerns, town planners persuaded the company to move its proposed project farther away from the nearest homes on Great Meadow Road. But many Carver residents still oppose the idea that solar projects can be located anywhere on property zoned for residential or agricultural uses, and circulated the petition severely restricting them.
At Monday’s meeting, the petition’s backers on the seven-member solar bylaw committee continued to press for strict limits on solar development, while supporters of solar energy contended that narrow restrictions are neither good for the town nor consistent with state law intended to encourage renewable energy development.
After the meeting, Tobolski, an alternate member on the committee, said that if the group wants to expand solar development beyond industrial areas, the specific areas where solar projects would be permitted should be placed individually before Town Meeting for up or down votes.
Member James O’Brien, a Great Meadow Road resident and one of the petition’s backers, said the bylaw should protect homeowners.
“The goal for me is a bylaw that is beneficial for Carver and helps protect individuals,’’ O’Brien said. Solar developments “can’t be restricted so that you can’t have them, but it shouldn’t be let loose the way it is now.’’
But in a town with a large cranberry industry, lots of land zoned agricultural, and only smaller tracts zoned industrial, others see things differently.
“I’m in favor of getting a bylaw adopted,’’ said James Nauen, a member of both the bylaw committee and the local Conservation Commission. “But it does not have to be limited to industrial zones only.’’
While solar assemblies should not be built “among houses’’ in developed neighborhoods, they can be located appropriately in residential and agricultural areas, Nauen said. “Others want to restrict them in a way to make them go away,’’ Nauen said. But state law won’t allow heavy-handed restrictions, he said.
Following the state’s Green Communities Act of 2008, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources developed an “as-of-right siting’’ model ordinance in line with the act’s goal of encouraging renewable energy sources. “As of right’’ means a use has the right to be developed in a designated zoning area and does not require an exemption from the rules - a higher regulatory standard.
The model bylaw suggests that setbacks - required distances from neighboring property lines - need be 10 to 25 feet in typical situations, and 50 feet next to residential or conservation areas.
On the project proposed for the bog neighboring Great Meadow Road, town officials secured setbacks of 150 feet from the nearest house, Hunter said. That project is now unlikely to be built even though it has received a permit, because of conditions imposed on it by the town and outside factors such as funding, Hunter said.
Another solar project approved by the Planning Board for cranberry land on West Street was embraced by the town, which signed a deal to buy its power for town facilities. The project is currently under review by the state, Hunter said. A third solar project intended to provide power for the town’s new water treatment plant in North Carver fell victim to delays in getting the water system underway.
People on both sides of the issue believe that a bylaw is needed because the town is likely to face more solar energy proposals. A large project under consideration for the former Ravenbrook landfill in North Carver has won town backing for a tax break. Officials say the development will be a good deal for the town because it includes payment of $250,000 in back taxes owed on the property, plus new tax revenue down the line.
“I think they are coming,’’ Nauen said of solar energy projects. “People are realizing it is healthy and in the long run cheaper not to have the other [environmental] hazards.’’
Whether Town Meeting acts on the petitioned bylaw or not, Hunter said the bylaw committee will continue to meet to amend that bylaw or propose a new one.