Solar capture installations and land use in Massachusetts have been experiencing a great deal of change and movement in the past several years, according to Kenneth Comia, deputy director of land use and development for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.

Comia explained why municipalities are actively amending their zoning bylaws regarding solar installations at this point in time.

“Municipalities are dealing with significant large-scale solar development because of a number of factors,” he explained, “not the least of which is the state’s SMART initiative.”

Created by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) is a long-term, sustainable solar incentive program to promote cost-effective solar development in the commonwealth. Its intent was to spur the development of non-greenhouse gas-emitting energy sources.

Farmers should voice opinions on Bay State solar regulations

Kenneth Comia

“The intent of new SMART regulations inadvertently incentivized large-scale solar development but left municipalities without enough guidance. Many local planning boards were caught flat-footed in trying to address some of the nuances of the regulations and some of the hardships of regulating solar in their small towns,” Comia said.

Battery energy storage systems have also brought about many questions in local town halls. The systems work by converting DC energy produced by solar panels and storing it as AC power for later use. Comia said that many local officials are scrambling to figure out whether or not these storage systems should be regulated in a component part of the local solar bylaw or as its own standalone use.

Comia discussed how the local adoption of solar regulation bylaws had impacted the farmers who have engaged in the process. He pointed to some of the more common features of local bylaws that have been enacted by local cities and towns and have passed muster with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office.

Farmers looking to help shape the local regulation of solar installation in their communities should have a good idea of what has successfully been allowed elsewhere in the Bay State. Some of the more common features of these bylaws include:

  • Major site plans review to preserve natural features, minimize tree and soil removal, abating noise and odors, parking, lighting and access
  • Additional requirements for additional use or open space use, such as minimizing soil removal and field disturbances
  • Creating a bond mechanism for decommissioning and removal of solar and installation
  • Limits on wholesale tree cutting beyond what is necessary for the solar array
  • Requirements for pollinator-friendly plantings
  • Prohibition on the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers for solar farms
  • Restriction of large-scale ground-mounted solar to parcels of three to 10 acres
  • Restriction of large-scale ground-mounted solar to parcels to parcels of land that had already been cleared of trees for at least five years

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by Enrico Villamaino