Just over a month after forming, a group of West Bridgewater residents convinced key town officials that a proposed $10 million ground-mounted solar farm project would destroy the character of their neighborhood on East Street.
The residents argued that the 3.3-megawatt installation proposed by Boston-based nonprofit Citizens Energy Corp. on 50 acres of open farmland would be ugly, devalue their properties, and cause health problems, even after the nonprofit suggested scaling it back to 1.5 megawatts.
But it wasn’t the speculative arguments that ultimately swayed the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals against issuing the special permit on April 23 that would have propelled the project forward. It was that the solar farm would have been a commercial use in a residentially zoned area.
In a state widely lauded for its renewable-energy initiatives, and a particularly aggressive solar energy push, West Bridgewater is just one of several communities where commercial solar installations have recently hit roadblocks led mainly by residents opposed to losing open space to rows of photovoltaic panels.
In Carver, construction of a permitted 3.1-megawatt installation slated for a private parcel at the intersection of Great Meadow Drive and Purchase Street was suddenly halted after a cease-and-desist order was issued by the town approximately four weeks ago. An appeal had been filed by neighboring residents who have been opposing the project since 2011 because of its proximity to their homes.
In Mattapoisett, opponents of a solar farm proposed for an 85-acre property off Tinkham Hill Road argued their case to the Zoning Board of Appeals last month, but the project was ultimately approved.
A 7-acre solar array proposed by Cambridge-based Renewable Energy Massachusetts and Syncarpha Solar LLC of New York was rejected in Holliston last year after residents strongly opposed that use on a historically registered farm.
Many communities have no bylaws specifically relating to solar projects, and instead rely on a state law that bars cities and towns from prohibiting or unreasonably regulating solar installations. If there is no specific bylaw, some local boards have argued that use must be allowed by right.
This is a mistake, said Forrest Broman, an attorney leading the East Street Neighborhood Association, the group formed by West Bridgewater residents opposed to Citizens Energy’s project. The group does not object to solar power, but it does not like the location of the project.
“The town was under the impression that [because of the state law] they couldn’t prevent it,” Broman said. “Other towns may think the same thing, which I think is tragic. There’s an easy way to prevent this, which is by passing a zoning bylaw.”
In response to the East Street residents group, West Bridgewater officials are drafting a zoning bylaw that would restrict large-scale commercial solar projects to areas designated for industrial use, said Steven Solari, the town’s building inspector. The proposed bylaw is expected to be presented at the June 10 Town Meeting, along with a request to impose an immediate townwide moratorium on all solar projects until a bylaw is in place, said Town Administrator Elizabeth D. Faricy.
The proliferation of solar projects and increasing opposition by residents have prompted a number of cities and towns to look into adopting bylaws regulating where these projects may go. Members of a bylaw subcommittee in West Bridgewater are basing their draft on Dartmouth’s bylaw, which passed legal muster in an opinion issued last year by the state Attorney General’s office. In Dartmouth, which boasts the largest amount of solar power in the state, large-scale installations are prohibited in residential areas.
In Marion, residents could vote on a solar bylaw at the May 13 Town Meeting, if the Planning Board and the Energy Management Committee can agree on the specifics. As more solar farms popped up in communities around them, Marion officials decided to be proactive, said Terri Santos, the town’s planning assistant.
Varying regulations from community to community could lead to an increase in legal appeals that will only continue until a precedent-setting opinion is issued by a court, said Michael Mendoza, president of the Southeastern Massachusetts Building Officials Association, which counts 150 building inspectors as members. A lot of the opposition to large ground-mounted solar projects stems from a not-in-my-backyard mentality, Mendoza said.
“People don’t like change, or they move into a neighborhood they expected to look a particular way and something new comes in and it’s something they didn’t bargain for,” Mendoza said. “Solar is a changing field. This is going to go on for a few years and it’s going to go in a few different directions until the dust settles.”
With more local opposition, developers and landowners will be forced to weigh their appeal options, which could be lengthy and expensive. In Carver, the landowner and the developer of the halted solar project have appealed the town’s decision to revoke the building permit. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for 7 p.m. on May 23 at Town Hall.
Fresh from the permit denial in West Bridgewater, Brian O’Connor, a spokesman for Citizens Energy, said the company is “weighing our options” on whether to appeal that decision.
Even as more communities are experiencing opposition to certain solar farm projects, it is still rare, said Carrie Cullen Hitt, senior vice president of state affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association, in a statement. They rank Massachusetts seventh in the country for most installed solar capacity.
Last Wednesday, Governor Deval Patrick announced the state has reached the administration’s goal of having 250 megawatts of installed solar capacity four years ahead of schedule. As a result, Patrick announced a new goal for the state of 1,600 megawatts by 2020, which could generate enough annual electricity to power approximately 240,000 homes.
Jon Abe, senior vice president of North Andover-based solar company Nexamp, said when it comes to solar projects, developers have to adopt the realtor’s mantra of location, location, location.
“We’ve seen, through careful site selection and dialogue with neighbors, broad support for solar projects, as long as they are properly sited, throughout Massachusetts,” Abe said. “In the situation where you’re going to site a solar project near a residential area, it’s important to begin the dialogue [with neighbors] early on in the process to better assess whether that site is appropriate for solar.”