Town Meeting set to decide whether to limit size of future solar projects

Jun 7, 2021

One article on Saturday’s Town Meeting warrant aims to regulate solar projects — namely, by reducing the size and potential ecological impact of a project.

Brought forth via a citizens’ petition, Nancy McHale’s article would amend Wareham’s solar project zoning bylaws to require that all future projects: 

• Be located on parcels at least 3 acres but no more than 10 acres in size

• Be located on parcels that have been previously cleared of trees for a period of at least five years prior to the submission date of the project

McHale — treasurer of the Wareham Land Trust — explained to the Board of Selectmen on April 27 that the existing solar bylaw, which was written in 2014, was “crafted to encourage solar farm development.” She said the bylaw was successful because Wareham has 19 large solar farms and there are more on the way. But now, in McHale’s eyes, it’s time for the town to reevaluate and incorporate “more recent guidance from the federal and state agencies as well as other conservation organizations” on siting restrictions for solar fields. 

McHale wrote in a Letter to the Editor that the solar zoning article she proposed was meant to be “the first step in updating Wareham’s outdated solar bylaw.” The article was designed to stop proponents of “green energy” solar projects from “clear-cutting” forests, McHale wrote.

McHale told the selectmen that the proposed size limit on future solar projects was designed to encourage people to put solar farms over parking lots and on roofs, which would naturally be smaller parcels.

If the article — Article 17 on the Special Spring Town Meeting warrant — passes, it is meant to act as a sort of stop-gap to curb solar projects until the town can update its existing solar bylaw. At that point, an updated bylaw would override the restrictions put forth in this proposed article.

Since the article was announced, nine solar field projects have submitted preliminary subdivision plans, which would grandfather them in with current zoning even if this article passes. Town Counsel Richard Bowen said that the board had no ability to deny preliminary subdivision plans that had been correctly filed with the town. 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. 

Town Administrator Derek Sullivan said the town has explored putting solar panels on town parking lots. He said his concern was that if the article passed, it would “put more solar fields right in residential properties.” Town Counsel Richard Bowen expressed concern that the bylaw singled out solar fields in a way that might not hold up in court. He encouraged the petitioner to show that the restrictions being put only on solar projects weren’t “unreasonable” in case the courts reviewed the bylaw. 

The Planning Board voted to recommend the article.