Solar rush: Companies try to get ahead of potential bylaw change

May 12, 2021

The Planning Board discussed eight solar field projects at its May 10 meeting. All of the applicants were requesting approval of preliminary subdivision plans that would grandfather them in if the citizens petition article restricting solar fields is passed at the June 12 Town Meeting.

The article would restrict any new solar fields to being between three and ten acres in size and on land that has been cleared for at least five years.

Because all the projects have been submitted to the town through registered mail, Town Planner Ken Buckland said, they are already protected from the proposed bylaw change. Acceptance of the preliminary subdivision plan would be a second layer of protection against the bylaw change.

Some of the projects, including three proposed by Borrego for land owned by A.D. Makepeace, have already been approved by the Planning Board.

Once a preliminary subdivision plan has been approved by the Planning Board, the applicant has seven months to file a definitive plan. After that is approved, the project is protected from zoning changes for eight years. 

Buckland said that those who submit a preliminary subdivision plan before the date of Town Meeting will be protected from the zoning change, if it passes.

“I would like to have an opportunity to double-check all this,” Planning Board member Richard Swenson said. “My worst fear is that this board had an opportunity to slow down some of these farms, and we gave it up by voting to accept all these plans tonight. We have 45 days, we have plenty of time, we could go a couple of meetings. But let’s make sure we understand the process to a T before we do anything.”

Other members shared Swenson’s hesitation.

“I’m uncomfortable jamming this many projects into one meeting,” said Planning Board member Mike King.

Swenson proposed an executive session for the Planning Board’s next meeting to discuss the issue with Town Counsel to make sure the board understood the full legal picture.

Charlie Rowley, an engineer who frequently consults for the town, said that preliminary subdivision plans lock in zoning. For a special permit, a building permit is required to lock in the zoning. Because Borrego received special permits, they would need to file a building permit or a preliminary subdivision plan to protect the project from the law change. 

The board voted unanimously to postpone further discussion of the preliminary plans until after a discussion with Town Counsel.