Future of solar projects looks cloudy
With application spike, Blackstone to pump the brakes on development
BLACKSTONE — The town may consider putting the brakes on new solar photovoltaic facilities, especially in residential areas where deforestation and clear cutting could impact wildlife and neighboring properties.
Faced with a large number of solar project applications over the past nine months, members of the Planning Board last week agreed to hold a workshop to discuss a possible moratorium on all commercial solar facilities as well as amendments to the town’s solar energy ordinance.
“It’s obvious that in the last year or so we’ve seen an enormous number of applications and I think maybe we should at some point look at a moratorium,” said Planner Anthony Catalano.
The board’s concerns stem from a recent letter from town resident Sheri J. Boisseau, of 295 Blackstone St., who says she is concerned about uncontrolled commercial solar farm development in residential districts in town, many of which are large forested areas.
In just the past several months, more than a half-dozen applications have come before the Planning Board and Conservation Commission for solar projects proposed at 142 Blackstone St., 83 Federal St., 315 Blackstone St., 307 Blackstone St., and Milk Street.
“The ordinance currently specifies that these facilities can be authorized under a special permit as acted on by the Planning Board in all residential-zoned areas,” Boisseau said. “I am proposing an amendment that would make this an excluded or prohibited use in those areas.”
According to Boisseau, the Massachusetts
Department of Energy Resources has produced a model zoning bylaw to assist communities with zoning on solar arrays.
“That bylaw strongly discourages locations that result in significant loss of land and natural resources, including farm and forest land, and encourages rooftop siting, as well as locations in industrial and commercial districts, or on vacant, disturbed land,” she said. “Significant tree cutting is problematic because of the important water management, cooling, and climate benefits trees provide.”
Boisseau says the town’s current solar energy ordinance is discretionary and open to interpretation.
“The site on Federal Street appears to have been already approved,” she told the board. “But if you approve the re- maining proposals it will be setting a precedent for more solar companies to target Blackstone.”
Boisseau reminded the board that the proposed solar projects at 307 and 315 Blackstone St. abut the Quissett Wildlife Management Area, conservation property owned by the state Department of Fish and Game. Comprised of 318 acres, the management area includes 2.8 miles of public trails and is home to grouse, deer, gray squirrel, fox, turkey, and numerous rare and endangered species.
“The deforestation of large parcels of land will result in the destruction of natural resources and adversely affect the high quality of rural life in Blackstone,” she said.
Boisseau’s concerns are shared by agencies like Mass Audubon, the Massachusetts Land Trust Coalition and The Nature Conservancy, which asked Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmen- tal Affairs Matthew Beaton in 2016 to address growing concerns over state incentives for the construction of utility-scale solar electric generating facilities on farmland, protected open space, and forests.
“Over the past two decades our organizations have strongly supported solar energy as integral to meeting our state’s clean energy goals and addressing global climate change,” the letter to Beaton said. “More recently, we have seen acres of ecologically and socially valuable (but comparatively inexpensive) land converted to large ground-mounted solar arrays. Inappropriate siting of solar arrays can create conflicts with the Commonwealth’s established goals, policies and direct funding programs for natural and historic resource protection.”
Members of the Blackstone Planning Board agree the town needs to revisit its bylaws and will take the lead by holding a workshop session in the coming weeks to discuss conducting a feasibility analysis and possible moratorium. Boisseau also sent copies of her letter to Town Administrator Daniel Keyes and the Board of Selectmen.
“You bring up a lot of great points,” Planner Owen Bebeau told Boisseau at last week’s meeting “This is something I think we need to consider as far as changing some of the bylaws, especially in residential areas. There seems to be something inherently wrong in tearing down acres of forest to put up solar panels. What you are basically doing is raping the land.”
“We don’t have anything in our bylaws that addresses preferred areas,” said Chairman Kirk Van Dyke. “I agree with this because it’s something I have struggled with over the past several months.”