To the Editor:
We’d like to update Marion’s residents about the status of the Marion Solar Bylaw since the spring town meeting, when a bylaw proposed by the Energy Management Committee (EMC) was nearly approved, lacking only four votes to achieve the two-thirds majority needed for zoning bylaws. While the Selectmen supported this bylaw, the Planning Board did not. The Planning Board promised to present their own version of a solar bylaw for the fall special town meeting. In recent weeks, the EMC and Planning Board have been meeting frequently to seek compromises on the issues that divided us in the spring. We’re pleased to report that substantial progress has been made.
On Tuesday, September 3, from 5:00 to 7:00 pm, a public hearing will be held at the Town Hall to present the working draft of the bylaw and listen to input from Marion’s residents. Of particular import, and a remaining point of divergence among members of the Planning Board, is the regulation of large-scale solar installations, so-called “solar farms.” The primary rub focuses on the fact that about 95 percent of Marion is zoned as “residential,” which includes a variety of land types including agriculture, wetlands, conservation land, and lots that have (or could have) houses on them. If solar farms are to come to Marion, they must be built on land that is technically zoned as “residential.”
There are 3 diverging views among Planning Board members on how to manage this issue, but it must be kept in mind that Massachusetts General Law 40A, Section 3 states: “No zoning ordinance or by-law shall prohibit or unreasonably regulate the installation of solar energy systems or the building of structures that facilitate the collection of solar energy, except where necessary to protect the public health, safety or welfare.”
The three views are:
1) Solar farms are allowed, but only with substantial restrictions, including large setbacks, screening, height restrictions, and lot-size limitations. Proposed projects must obtain a Special Permit and an approved Major Site Plan Review from the Planning Board. The draft bylaw presented for the public hearing takes this approach and is favored by the EMC, as it ensures that the public’s health, safety and welfare are protected.
2) Another option is an outright ban on large-scale solar installations in residentially zoned districts, which may be in conflict with state law 40A and would effectively prohibit Marion’s residents from producing solar power in quantities beyond the needs for their own home.
3) The third view is to create a “Solar Overlay District,” which would carve out certain areas of the town where large-scale solar installations would be allowed with as-yet undefined restrictions.
While the first two options are clear, the possible new Overlay District is not. The parameters and priorities for selecting these areas have not been defined, nor has the process for defining them. Removal of the right to build a solar farm from some areas of town while keeping it in others would be an arbitrary process. Limiting solar farms to these Solar Overlay Districts, combined with the restrictive setbacks, screening requirements, demolition requirements, and costly permitting procedures, would effectively prevent the very solar installations that the state law was designed to encourage.
The EMC contends that solar farms should be allowed under the conditions of the clearly defined criteria stated in the draft bylaw that has been provided for the public hearing. These specific restrictions include: (1) lots must be larger than three acres; (2) solar arrays must be set back from property lines by 100 feet except along boundaries that abut non-buildable lots, in which case normal setbacks for that zone would apply; (3) array height would be limited to eight feet; (4) and full screening is required to reduce any impact on neighbors. A solar farm application would require a Major Plan Review and a Special Permit (allowing for abutter input). This approach provides owners of large lots with an opportunity to use their land to produce renewable energy while protecting the rights of neighbors.
We urge all who have an interest in solar power in Marion to attend the Planning Board’s public hearing on the proposed bylaw. The hearing is scheduled for 5:00 to 7:00 pm on Tuesday, September 3 in the Marion Town Hall. This is your opportunity to provide your views on the solar bylaw before the Planning Board finalizes its Article for the Town Meeting warrant.
Marion Energy Management Committee
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