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Planning Board considers new photovoltaic array

Date: 3/13/2014

By Chris Maza

WILBRAHAM – At its March 5 meeting, the Planning Board discussed the potential ramifications of a proposed utility-scale photovoltaic array, which would be built on the land of the Charles L. Merrick Trust on Main Street.

Planning Director John Pearsall explained that a new company, No Fossil Fuel, LLC, had brought forth the plan. Previously, another company had presented a proposal for the site and had a lease for the property, but the project did not come to fruition.

“What they are proposing is a solar array here in this area [661 Main St.],” Pearsall said. “It’s going to depend on the utility connection, but they are saying that their maximum proposal is three megawatts, which would be about 15 acres.”

The minimum size the company would consider, Pearsall added, was one megawatt, or about five acres. The actual size, he said, depends primarily upon the amount of power the connection to the utilities can support.

No Fossil Fuel specializes in solar and wind electricity generating facilities, currently developing ground-mounted solar facilities in Dartmouth and Marshfield, according to its website. In addition, it owns and operates three wind turbine facilities in Kingston.

Pearsall told the board the company wishes to start the permitting process as soon as possible.

“A lot of this is driven by these state programs,” he said. “It seems like the window is closing on a lot of these state programs in terms of the financial incentives, so they want to get involved while that opportunity is still there.”

Pearsall went on to say there is a zoning issue facing the town because the situation underscores the fact that the town does not possess any regulations to limit where such a facility can be constructed. He explained that current zoning states that any accessory land use cannot be more than 1,000 square feet. However, such a facility might not qualify as an accessory use, so the town might be hard pressed to require the company to obtain a special permit for the project.

“Their argument is [if] the town doesn’t have any regulations for these types of things yet in place, then they are allowed in any zoning district and we can’t stop them,” he said.

Pearsall called it a “gray area,” adding that a representative from the company that he spoke with said it is willing to work with the town.

“They’re not trying to just ram it through; they’re willing to come in and do site plan approval and take your input,” he said.

Planning Board member Richard Butler said that this type of situation was exactly what a proposed bylaw discussed earlier in the meeting would address. Should that bylaw pass at the Annual Town Meeting, a special permit would be required in order to construct a photovoltaic facility. However, if the project receives site plan approval and moves forward prior to the Town Meeting, it would not have to adhere to the new regulations.

Board member David Sanders likened the situation to what could happen should the town fail to adopt zoning regulations for medical marijuana dispensaries, a topic which was also discussed earlier in the meeting.

When asked by Building Inspector Lance Trevallion, Pearsall said a public hearing with notice to abutters would not be necessary, but the company might agree to attend such a hearing.