Planning for Solar

To the Editor:

Recent media reporting on the objectives and agendas of Marion’s Energy Management Committee, EMC, requires a pause for scrutiny and comment regarding the impact of this Committee’s activities on Marion.

A major EMC agenda item is changing Marion’s zoning bylaws to allow “as a matter of right zoning” with “expedited permitting” at the land fill for a commercial solar farm to be used as a solar garden. This “as a matter of right” is the same zoning concept the State mandates regarding 40B affordable housing allowing out-of-town developers to cram down projects inconsistent with Marion’s zoning objectives and protections.

The first EMC objective with this proposed zoning change is to meet the State’s criteria for Marion to qualify for the Green Communities’ designation. The second is to allow the EMC to develop a private commercial solar garden on the Town’s landfill. These proposed changes would allow the EMC to circumvent Marion’s traditional commercial zoning requirements for a special permit and site plan approval for the commercial solar farm project. At this point, commercial solar farms are not allowed in Marion. If such projects are to be allowed, a two-thirds majority Town Meeting vote approving zoning changes would be required. Solar farms should be allowed only in commercially and industrially zoned districts by Planning Board special permit and site plan approval. This is just good zoning public policy consistent with Marion’s zoning requirements for all commercial projects. Solar farms should not be treated any differently than any other commercial industrial project. The EMC would like a “favored nations” status for such projects to meet the requirements of the Green Communities’ designation and to construct a privately-owned solar garden on the Town’s environmentally sensitive landfill.

At this juncture, it’s apparent that there are a number of significant issues all intertwined like a bowel of spaghetti and the issues are: (1) zoning, (2) Green Communities’ designation criteria and (3) siting a privately-owned commercial solar garden on the Town’s landfill.

The State’s Green Communities program is strictly voluntary. Marion elects to participate in the program if it’s determined the benefits exceed the burdens for the Town and its citizens. For Marion, the direct and indirect cost to the Town and school can easily range from $300,000 to $500,000 before grants are received. This becomes the breakeven point or hurdle rate necessary before there is any State grant money benefit to the Town. This hurdle rate does not consider the cost to meet “stretch building code” requirements that must be adopted as part of the Town’s qualifying criteria.

What exactly does qualifying for the State’s Green Communities’ designation provide Marion? The answer is simple: (1) intangible “bragging rights” that Marion is a Green Community and (2) allowance for Marion to participate competitively with other designated communities for grants which in the aggregate by state statute are limited to $10 million. Grants can only be spent on a very limited list of selected environmentally green projects. It’s a community competitive “beauty contest” for limited grant money. Only about 30 percent of the State’s 351 municipalities now qualify for the Green Communities’ designation. There is a reason for this low community participation rate too.

It’s very difficult for smaller communities such as Marion to qualify for Green Communities’ designation and to find Town projects that will qualify for grant money. First, it is a very, very expensive and administratively burdensome state program for small communities such as Marion. The administrative and capital costs and other qualifying requirements are extremely high in relationship to the benefits received. Secondly, Marion, due to its small size, does not have a Green Communities’ qualifying capital requirements base large enough to effectively utilize any grant money that might be available. It’s a cost-benefit analysis the EMC has yet to perform, yet the EMC seeks significant zoning change before such work has been completed and the Town is informed of the results.

There are five criteria that Marion must meet in order to qualify for the State’s Green Communities’ designation.

1. Stretch building code adopted by a majority vote at Town Meeting;

2. “Matter of right” zoning for selected alternative energy such as solar farms, requiring a two-thirds majority Town Meeting vote;

3. Expedited permitting process, again requiring a two-thirds majority Town Meeting vote;

4. Establish a program to purchase fuel efficient vehicles; and

5. Establish a five-year 20 percent energy reduction program for the Town and school operations and facilities.

These criteria all appear very appealing until their consequences on the Town are considered, as will be discussed in future letters.

Ted North



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