Franklin County towns join legal brief in land use case

  • A “friend of the court” brief, signed by Buckland, Wendell, Shutesbury and Pelham, asks the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to protect the power of municipal governments to control how land is used in their communities, including for solar arrays. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/25/2022 4:42:17 PM

GREENFIELD — A handful of Franklin County towns have signed onto a legal brief in a case being heard on March 7 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

The case, Tracer Lane II Realty LLC v. City of Waltham, involves a 35-year-old zoning law that says municipalities cannot “unreasonably regulate” solar energy systems. In this case, the developer, Tracer Lane II Realty, is disputing the local authority’s decision to deny a permit for a large industrial solar project in a residential area.

The “friend of the court” brief, signed by Buckland, Wendell, Shutesbury and Pelham, asks the Supreme Judicial Court to protect the power of municipal governments to control how land is used in their communities.

The brief — filed earlier this month by the Plymouth-based group, Save the Pine Barrens — argues that the state’s Home Rule procedures and local zoning bylaws “guarantee communities the right to use local laws to protect public health, safety and welfare, and that industrial energy facilities should not be allowed to evade these laws,” according to Save the Pine Barrens.

The Tracer Lane II Realty solar project is subsidized by the state’s Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program, according to the group.

In a news release, Save the Pine Barrens also states that developers like Tracer Lane II Realty use the outdated zoning law to claim industrial solar generating facilities subsidized by SMART should be allowed anywhere in a city or town, regardless of zoning restrictions limiting uses to certain districts, such as residential, commercial and industrial.

Buckland Planning Board member John Gould said his board, which unanimously agreed to sign onto the legal brief, felt that when the state law was initially written, lawmakers couldn’t have anticipated solar would grow into such a large industry. The idea was simply to enable people to consider solar use at the residential level.

“That’s why, as a Planning Board, we felt it was a responsible thing to stand behind,” Gould said.

On a personal level, he said, no group should be given special treatment.

“This company wants to take residential land and get it rezoned for commercial use,” he said. “Which, is kind of a problem in principle, because any individual shouldn’t get special treatment, where a town has decided and voted on what should happen in a particular zone. … That should be up to the town.”

On the topic of climate change, he said, solar has become “much more of a player” in the energy industry.

“It has actually become an industry in itself,” Gould said. “It has sort of become a little bit of a perversion of the original intent, because now we have solar companies on an industrial scale who want to obtrude on residential scale.”

And in some cases, he added, solar companies remove forest land for the installation of solar.

“I’m all for solar, but I’m not all for solar at the expense of forestry,” Gould said.

Buckland resident Janet Sinclair, who initially brought the issue up to the Planning Board earlier this year, said the town “almost unanimously” passed its own solar bylaw.

“I think it would be very difficult for us to think that our bylaws could be pretty much tossed out the window if challenged by a deep-pocketed developer, even though what passed here was approved by the Attorney General’s Office,” said Sinclair, who is also a member of Save Massachusetts Forests, a conservation group that signed the legal brief. “But that is what is happening to towns all across the commonwealth.”

Gould said while he can’t predict how this decision will impact the rest of Massachusetts, “how it comes out can very well set a precedent.”

“If the community should have the say in what happens there,” Gould said, “is that only true until a commercial interest comes along and has the money it takes to make it happen?”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne


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