Advocates back legislation seeking more local control on large-scale solar projects


Staff Writer

Published: 11-29-2023 8:47 PM

BOSTON — Valley residents are supporting proposed legislation that would give more local control over large-scale solar projects.

The bills, S.1319/H.2082, “An Act Regarding Municipal Zoning Powers,” attempt to give more local power over the regulation of large-scale ground-mounted solar developments. It was filed by state Sen. Jacob Oliveira, D-Ludlow, state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and state Rep. Paul McMurtry, D-Dedham.

If signed into law, the bills would eliminate language from Chapter 40A, Section 3 of the Massachusetts General Laws. Specifically, the following sentence would be removed: “No zoning ordinance or bylaw shall prohibit or unreasonably regulate the installation of solar energy systems or the building of structures that facilitate the collection of solar energy, except where necessary to protect the public health, safety or welfare.”

The sentence was added to the law in 1985 and, in recent decades, has been used by solar developers to bypass local zoning ordinances. If the legislation passes, communities could institute their own zoning bylaws for solar and will be less likely to be sued by developers if they do not approve development proposals.

Advocates of the law include Shutesbury’s Michael DeChiara, who testified before the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government last week.

“These bills have created a huge barrier for municipalities between their forests and larger state priorities for solar. Right now municipalities, practically speaking, cannot prohibit solar without the risk of being sued,” DeChiara said. “This put municipalities on the defensive to prove their regulations don’t comply even if they are clear.”

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Many at the hearing testified that this law is outdated, having been added in 1985 before large-scale solar systems were commercially available.

“We have witnessed severe damage statewide by big solar companies ill-equipped to understand the impacts on green lands subsidized by taxpayers with no oversight by the state,” Amherst resident Lenore Bryck told the committee. “We still have this archaic legislation and state subsidies encouraging clear-cutting forests and putting productive farmland at risk.”

Those against the legislation included Kate Daniel, Northeast regional director for the Coalition for Community Solar Access. She said this sentence in Section 3 is needed to prevent municipalities from prohibiting the construction of solar developments, which helps the state reach its goals to reduce carbon emissions.

“The language this bill would strike is a safeguard to ensure that solar is not impeded by unnecessary restrictions,” she said. “Communities still have the autonomy to determine where solar is appropriate and what additional requirements are necessary to make solar projects work for that community. The language simply requires that a municipality prohibit this public need if there is a compelling reason to do so.”

Advocates have fought for similar issues in the past. This came up in the 2022 Supreme Court case Tracer Lane II Realty LLC v. City of Waltham. This case involved a 35-year-old zoning law that says municipalities cannot “unreasonably regulate” solar energy systems. In this case, the developer, Tracer Lane II Realty, disputed the local authority’s decision to deny a permit for a large industrial solar project in a residential area.

The court ruled in favor of the developer.

Buckland, Wendell, Shutesbury and Pelham, as well as the Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, all signed a “friend of the court” brief in favor of the city of Waltham.

“This should not be viewed as an anti-solar bill or pro-solar bill. This is about municipal control,” said Buckland resident Janet Sinclair. “It is our local zoning that is protecting us right now. No one else is doing it.”