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Solar farms now allowed outside of industrial-zoned areas

Date: 4/5/2018

AGAWAM – On Apr. 2, the Agawam City Council voted to allow solar farms outside of industrial-zoned areas on a special-permit basis, ending a long debate over where these farms can and cannot be built.

The Council unanimously agreed to create special permits for potential solar farm owners, which would allow owners to operate farms on certain agricultural-zoned properties. The ordinance passed its final reading with an amendment stating potential solar farm owners need to take “reasonable steps” to inhibit invasive growth species within the field, including any kind of living organism that is not native to an ecosystem and may cause harm.

“I think the Council did a nice job. They started really focusing on this recently and trying to realize that we had to come up with something,” said Mayor William Sapelli. “They worked diligently as a body and it was nice to see them come together and compromise. They realized at the end of the day they had to come with a consensus and give up some of their positions to do what’s best for the town – and I think that’s what they did”

Photovoltaic systems and their placement has been a hot-button issue in Agawam and recent efforts to amend zoning regulations have failed. Until now, there were no town ordinances or bylaws that addressed not only the zoning requirements for where the solar energy systems could and couldn’t go, but other issues such as the size.

Solar farms – sometimes known as solar parks or solar fields – are the large-scale application of solar photovoltaic panels to generate green, clean electricity at scale, usually to feed into the grid.

“We’re talking about large, ground-mounted solar arrays that are used to generate electricity,” City Council President Christopher Johnson previously told Reminder Publications at an earlier stage in the ordinance process. “We’re not talking about solar panels people put on the roofs of their houses.”     

The solar farms Johnson described can cover anything between one acre and 100 acres, and are usually developed in rural or industrial areas. The farms go through a rigorous planning procedure before they’re approved, taking into account the suitability of the specific site, potential impact on the area and relevant renewable energy targets.

In the Bay State, the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (RPS) requires retail electricity suppliers, both regulated distribution utilities and competitive suppliers, to obtain a percentage of the electricity they serve to their customers from qualifying renewable energy facilities.

When Eversource wanted to build two solar farms in Agawam last year, Northampton Attorney Michael Pill argued that the company’s proposal was not allowed in residential or agricultural zoning districts. However, the City Council rejected a proposed ordinance that would restrict the farms to only industrial-zoned land, explained Johnson.

After a lot of resistance from Agawam residents, Eversource later pulled both of their applications for solar farms. Johnson said much of the public concern stems from the visual impacts of the solar facilities in residential areas.

“They’re worried about property values,” said Johnson. “The biggest impact is trying to mitigate the visible impact on properties – visual mitigation is the biggest hurtle in most situations.”

On the other hand, if the issue for Agawam residents comes down to aesthetics, Sapelli said the town should respect that.

“I’m not going to judge someone on whether aesthetics plays a role in this, that’s personal preference and a personal right,” he said. “It depends on how much of that aesthetic value is legitimate or just fabricated, that’s a the call the City Council will have to make when reviewing special permits.”

The mayor said the permits would allow the local government to study and safeguard any particular solar development at the time of the proposal. The City ­Council will be the governing body to rule on the special permitting.

Both the mayor and the council president said they believe the special permits will serve as a compromise for the situation.

“Solar is a clean renewable energy source, so, that’s a positive as far as the town is concerned,” said Johnson. “It adds to the tax base while potentially allowing property owners – especially if by permit in agriculturally-zoned areas – to have revenue come in for leasing space for solar farms, so they don’t have to face selling property and having it be developed versus keeping it open.”