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Amherst councilors explore moratorium on big solar projects

  • Amherst Town Hall. JOHN PHELAN/VIA WIKIMEDIA



Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2021

AMHERST — A large ground-mounted solar system proposed for wooded land near the Pelham and Shutesbury town lines is prompting Amherst officials to consider a moratorium on such projects.

A divided Town Council voted 7-6 Monday to have the moratorium reviewed by the council’s Community Resources Committee.

The moratorium is proposed by District 2 Councilors Pat De Angelis and Lynn Griesemer, who also serves as the council president, to possibly give guidance for amendments to town bylaws so landscapes are better protected and possible environmental damage is prevented.

“The town needs time to consider and study the future implications and impacts of large-scale ground-mounted solar voltaic installations developments upon the town as a whole, as well as the consistency of the already completed solar facilities with the town’s current and future planning goals,” De Angelis and Griesemer wrote in a memo to their colleagues.

They also note the town has approved multiple installations of solar farms, at least one of which has involved extensive clear-cutting of forests and clearing of ground vegetation, and which is located in proximity to residential neighborhoods that depend on private drinking wells and septic systems. Article 3 of zoning, they contend, “is inadequate for protecting the town’s environmental resources and mitigating other negative effects of large-scale ground-mounted solar facilities on the town.

The moratorium comes after a recent proposal that is being reviewed by the Conservation Commission for an 11-megawatt project on about 100 acres of wooded land owned by W.D. Cowls Inc. south of homes on Shutesbury Road.

If the moratorium is approved — by a two-thirds council majority — it would prevent the Zoning Board of Appeals and Planning Board from accepting or approving “any application for a large-scale ground-mounted solar energy system with a rated capacity of 250 kW DC or greater.”

This would buy time for town officials to examine what areas are suitable for solar, and regulate tree clearing, provide design standards and address forest habitat loss.

“It will allow us to create reasonable regulation without preventing the development of solar energy systems and helping us to avoid the environmental disasters like those that have occurred in Hopkinton and Williamsburg.”

That references a solar developer who is paying a more than $1 million for damaging wetlands and polluting the Mill River in Williamsburg, following an April 2020 lawsuit filed by Attorney General Maura Healey’s office that alleged that the company disregarded pollution control requirements.

During public comment, many of those who spoke, primarily abutters to the project, advocated for the moratorium.

Renee Moss, 277 Shutesbury Road, said a revised bylaw will create a pathway for smart development, and that forest land is important for sequestering carbon. “We need both solar and forests to mitigate the forces of extreme climate change,” Moss said.

“I hope that the council really steps back and takes a look at the implications of bringing an industrial scale complex to the woods,” said Jeff McQueen of 156 Shutesbury Road.

Stu Shulman, 237 Shutesbury Road, said the existing habitat is impressive and could be damaged by the solar.

Sharon Weizenbaum of Henry Street referenced the climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, adding that the contribution by western Massachusetts to combating climate change is the woods. “To cut down forests is insane,” Weizenbaum said.

But Elisa Campbell of Pine Grove said the world doesn’t have time now to not pursue solar when there is a chance. “We need to do our part now,” Campbell said.

Michael DeChiara, chairman of the Shutesbury Planning Board, offered assistance in crafting a revised bylaw. His town’s bylaw, for instance, requires that developments must provide 4 acres of carbon sequestration for each acre of solar developed.