LMPC to finalize draft ordinance on solar energy projects at January 22 meeting

| Joanne Cole, NGX |

Insightful suggestions and thoughtful deliberation at its December meeting meant the Land Management Planning Committee was unable to wrap up its draft solar energy ordinance by year’s end, as members had hoped.  No one is complaining, though, as the December conversation refined LMPC’s thinking about siting and scale of projects, what project proposals must include and who should review them, decommissioning and removal of arrays, and more. 

LMPC and town planner Scott Hastings now expect to consider a final final draft on January 22.  This timetable would permit a joint meeting and review with the Select Board and Planning Board in February, a public hearing in March, formal adoption on the town meeting warrant in April, and consideration by voters at town meeting in May.

Recurring questions for LMPC have included whether to allow solar arrays in any zoning district and whether to impose a cap limiting the maximum size of arrays. December’s conversation resolved that the draft ordinance will permit solar arrays in every zone, including the historic district, and will not limit their maximum size, except in the resource protection zone. There, ground-mounted arrays must be less than 1500 s.f. to minimize impact on groundwater or other resources. 

Member Don Libby was vocal in opposing an overall cap on the maximum size of arrays, framing it as a matter of principle and policy. “How serious are you for reducing the carbon footprint?” he asked rhetorically. “Are you serious or not serious?” Alluding to climate activist Greta Thunberg, Libby answered his own question, saying “How dare we not try to do something?”  

To Libby, visual impact should matter more than an arbitrary size. Under the proposed ordinance, the Planning Board may require an assessment of a solar project’s visual impact – for example, its effect on scenic views from roadways or the historic character of an area. “I don’t have a number for a cap,” said Libby, “because if you do the visual impact [study], and it’s out in the middle of nowhere where no one can see it, what difference does it make” if the project is “two hundred acres”?

If a proposed array does have visual impact, said Libby, “we can take steps at that point in time” to address it.  The committee agreed and will rely on guidance about visual impact studies offered by resident Terry DeWan, whose firm has extensive experience with large-scale projects.  

In deciding against a limit on the size of arrays, LMPC members were aided by a rough-and-ready map showing relatively few sizable parcels of land in town.  Only 42 parcels exceed 100 acres, although planner Hastings cautioned that this figure doesn’t take into account adjacent parcels with the same owner.  Even so, member Charles Gauvin noted that there are “relatively rare opportunities to do a huge project.”        

Another issue: arrays located ‘offsite,’ for example, on land that’s not on or next to the parcel where the owner’s home or business is. Similarly, should a group of homeowners be allowed to band together on a system on a remote parcel?  How about an array in the open space of a cluster subdivision?  LMPC said yes to all, with an asterisk for resource protection zones.

LMPC also again discussed requiring a financial guarantee up front to ensure dismantling and removal of spent or abandoned systems.  Member Jean Libby noted that a number of solar companies have gone bankrupt and also that hurricanes and other natural disasters can destroy systems.  “We don’t want to see people just walk away and leave it,” said Libby. 

On this matter, too, LMPC has a sought a balance: requiring a guarantee that protects the public but not at such cost or complexity that it discourages solar projects altogether.  To that end, planner Hastings had included more-flexible security arrangements in the December draft.  LMPC discussed those alternatives along with enforcement options for landowners and the town. 

Following the committee’s comments, Hastings will rework the draft ordinance and share it ahead of LMPC’s January 22 meeting. Beyond that, Hastings and the committee plan to take up topics that have been on the back burner during the months of work on the solar ordinance.

Video of the December 18 LMPC meeting can be viewed here.  The draft solar energy ordinance and more information about LMPC’s work can be accessed here on the town website.