Proposed Colrain solar bylaw changes would add definitions, expand site plan reviews

Solar panels pictured in Montague. Revisions to Colrain’s solar bylaws that clarify what constitutes large-, medium- and small-scale projects and that expand the associated site plan review requirements are likely on tap for residents to consider at the June 4 Annual Town Meeting.

Solar panels pictured in Montague. Revisions to Colrain’s solar bylaws that clarify what constitutes large-, medium- and small-scale projects and that expand the associated site plan review requirements are likely on tap for residents to consider at the June 4 Annual Town Meeting. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

By AALIANNA MARIETTA

For the Recorder

Published: 04-19-2024 12:16 PM

Modified: 04-19-2024 2:18 PM


COLRAIN — Revisions to the town’s solar bylaws that clarify what constitutes large-, medium- and small-scale projects and that expand the associated site plan review requirements are likely on tap for residents to consider at the June 4 Annual Town Meeting.

Planning Board Chair Bobby Slowinski said the proposed revisions, a draft of which was approved by the board on April 10, will be posted on the town website when the Selectboard votes on the warrant on May 7.

The proposed bylaw provides standards for the “placement, design, construction, operation, monitoring, modification and removal” of solar photovoltaic systems to address public safety and utility interconnection, as well as “provide adequate financial assurance for the eventual decommissioning” of such systems, thus regulating solar from its installation to its end.

The first in the series of proposed bylaw amendments updates the definition of “Large-Scale Ground Mounted Solar-Photovoltaic Systems” from systems greater than 0.1 acres, or 4,365 feet, to systems larger than 40,000 square feet.

The new draft also adds two new system categories to the mix: a “Medium-Scale Ground-Mounted Solar Photovoltaic System” between 1,750 and 40,000 square feet, and a “Small-Scale Ground Mounted Solar-Photovoltaic System” 1,750 square feet or less.

While only large-scale ground-mounted systems larger than or equal to 0.1 acres require a site plan review under the current regulations, the proposed draft applies to both large-scale and medium-scale systems.

The Planning Board also tweaked a few of the site plan review requirements. For example, the current bylaw requires review of “locations of any priority habitat areas defined by the Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program (NHESP) on or near the project site.” The proposed bylaw instead requires review of locations with “active farmland and prime farmland soils, wetlands, permanently protected open space, priority habitat areas and BioMap 2 Critical Natural Landscape Core Habitat mapped by the Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program (NHESP) and ‘Important Wildlife Habitat’ mapped by the DEP.” According to mass.gov, a “priority habitat” refers to known homes for any “state-listed rare species” of plants or animals codified by the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act.

Meanwhile, the board decided to remove a requirement for the resident to obtain written verification of whether their site falls within a Local Historic District or National Register District from the town clerk and submit a Project Notification Form. The Planning Board decided to cut this guideline because Massachusetts state law and Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act already protects these districts.

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Lastly, the Planning Board added, “The town of Colrain shall be named as secondary insured and shall impose a lien on the property to maintain active status of bond in the event of abandonment,” to the financial surety stipulation found in the “Abandonment or Decommissioning” section of the solar bylaws.

These amendments arose from a collaboration between Colrain’s ad hoc solar committee and the UMass Clean Energy Extension, which provides assistance with navigating state programs, energy-efficiency incentives and renewable energy projects.

“In that project, we learned about solar opportunities for Massachusetts and our towns,” said Planning Board member Marybeth Chichester, who is also the former chair of the ad hoc committee.

According to Planning Board and Energy Committee member David Greenberg, the ad hoc solar committee crafted a four-part plan from this collaboration, including an assessment of community solar resources and infrastructure, an understanding of Colrain’s specific solar development potential, and a community-wide solar survey and analysis of the results. Based on this survey, 98% of respondents reported feeling “extremely” or “moderately” concerned about climate change and 90% felt a positive attitude toward solar development. These action items opened up the final step: a Community Solar Action Plan.

Revising the solar bylaws emerged as a critical puzzle piece of the Community Solar Action Plan after UMass’ Solar Resource and Infrastructure Assessment of Colrain revealed the town’s current bylaws to be “overly restrictive,” according to Colrain resident Haynes Turkle, who worked with the university on the ad hoc solar committee. Turkle wrote in an email that the study highlighted the need for revised bylaws that would better follow the Department of Energy Resources’ guidance to convince more residents to switch to solar and propel Massachusetts toward its 2050 net-zero emissions goal.

Since the ad hoc solar committee finished its work with UMass in August, the Energy Committee has spearheaded the town’s solar push. Alongside UMass Clean Energy Extension research fellow Zara Dowling, the committee will lead a public meeting on Saturday, April 27, at 5 p.m. in Colrain Central School and over Zoom for residents to learn more about the Community Solar Action Plan.