Editorial: Kudos to officials for weighing pros, cons of opening lands to solar farms

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

John Lunt, assistant to the mayor for special projects, recently came before the town’s Economic Development Committee proposing the town make it easier to build larger solar farms on industrial land.

Specifically he was requesting the Town Council lift the current 10-acre cap on large-scale solar arrays in the Planned and General Industrial districts. He said several companies have approached the town over the last few months about the possibility of developing large-scale solar projects in industrially zoned areas.

The town’s current zoning limits large-scale solar projects to 10 acres, which Lunt said is no longer practical. As solar installations have grown in the last decade, he said it’s common to have arrays that are more than 10 times the size they were in 2007, when Greenfield adopted its current zoning ordinance. Lunt said the 10-acre limit also prohibits companies from receiving federal tax credits that are currently available as financial incentives for solar projects.

Greenfield already hosts a solar farm on its capped former landfill off Wisdom Way, and other towns have seen similar installations ranging from 10  to 20 acres. On municipal land, the town benefits from leasing the land to a commercial solar developer and gets a discount on some of the power generated. It’s a good deal that has saved taxpayers money. A commercial farm on private land would also benefit the town through property taxes the project would pay — and of course it would contribute toward the state’s long-term renewable energy goals.

Lunt argues there are many places in the town’s industrially zoned areas that aren’t well suited for traditional factory or other industrial uses. So allowing their development as solar farms won’t hinder job-creation.

On the other hand, Town Councilor Isaac Mass has expressed concern that allowing larger solar farms by right could have unintended consequences on the limited areas where the land is suitable for job-creation. Mass suggested allowing solar installations in excess of 10 acres by special permit rather than by right.

Lunt said he doesn’t have an issue with the idea in principle, but recommended increasing the acreage allowed by-right from 10 to 50 acres. He said there are several larger parcels left in the industrial areas, which range from 35 to 115 acres, which could be protected for possible manufacturing by a special permit. Lunt said most of the larger potential industrial lots are located in the Planned Industrial area near Adams Road.

We agree with both town leaders.

The town’s zoning should encourage alternatives to fossil fuels for electricity generation, as Lunt asks, especially if they also generate tax dollars on land not otherwise commercially developable. Solar farms, which the state and federal government are encouraging with tax breaks, and which are becoming cheaper as the technology and manufacturing of the panels improves, are the future. So, modifying the town’s zoning accordingly, now, make sense.

But Mass is also right to note that Greenfield has little flat buildable industrial land left, and what’s left should be used to its maximum benefit to create jobs and to expand the tax base. The town’s economic development directors over the years have struggled to attract new industries here, in part because the available parcels are too small or otherwise limited by ledge and location. Attempts to build outside the I-91 Industrial Park is usually met with opposition because the land is also valuable for residential or agriculture uses.

Mass has suggested that Lunt meet with the Planning Board to develop a plan that considers all of the benefits and possible unintended consequences of such an amendment, and then bring the proposal back to the Town Council.

That seems like sound planning to us.