Chairman: Forget the 1,000 Feet — Just Ban Them

Things are suddenly a tad sunnier for residents opposed to solar farms clouding up the scenic landscape.

Residents were only looking to amend the solar bylaw to prohibit large-scale solar farms from the Route 105 scenic highway when they proposed an article for the Special Fall Town Meeting. But town counsel cautioned that banning the arrays 1,000 feet from the road is arbitrary and likely to be rejected from the Attorney General, and his suggested 250 feet would never fly with the residents. So on October 10 during the public hearing for the citizens’ petition article, residents were surprised and delighted when Rochester Planning Board Chairman Arnie Johnson suggested, “Let’s just take the gray out of it.”

“To me, I’d almost just say forget the designations,” said Johnson. The 1,000 feet, 500 feet, etc. “Just come out and say it — no ground-mounted panels in the scenic highway. Done.”

And Johnson meant any property that fronts the scenic highway, “And ban all panels,” Johnson said.

Route 105 currently is the only State designated scenic highway in Rochester, and in the future Town Meeting could potentially seek to add more roads to that list, which would also ultimately fall under the bylaw amendment.

Speaking on behalf of the 100 signatures in support of the solar bylaw amendment article, Sara Johnston said all they wanted to do was keep some of the scenic vistas along Route 105 open. They took the idea of the 1,000 feet from a solar bylaw in Woodstock, Vermont.

“We didn’t do an exhaustive search…but the one in Woodstock,” Johnston said, “we said ‘sounds good’ because basically it is to preserve vistas. That’s what makes 105 a scenic road, its vistas.”

“It’s not our intention…to ban solar panels from Rochester, it’s our intention to at least protect one road that’s considered a scenic road,” said Johnston. “We’re limiting it to that road…”

But you wouldn’t be, Johnson interjected. “You’re limiting it to a certain district… The Town could pick out ten more roads, then this one wouldn’t apply to those. You’re not just limiting it, the way this is written you’re not just limiting it to the Route 105 corridor.”

And as for the article’s language ‘large-scale solar voltaic installation,’ Johnson argued against using that term because developers could simply remove a few panels from their projects to keep them below the 250-kilowatt threshold and slip a project through.

“There’s somebody who’s going to find a way around it,” said Planning Board member Lee Carr.

Just make it simple, said Johnson.

“We’re going to ban ground-mounted solar arrays (from scenic highways),” said Johnson. “That means nobody can put one single panel on the ground… I think it’s cleaner.”

That way you prevent potential multiple smaller-scale installations instead of just one big one, Johnson said.

“But it’s your bylaw,” Johnson told Johnston. “We can’t amend it. It’s you folks…and you have to go up on town meeting floor. You’re going to have to defend it.”

According to Johnson, town counsel gave the nod to the outright ban.

“Okay! Sounds good to me,” said Johnston. “I’m happy to do it, you tell me what you want me to read.”

“I think your language is fine on ‘any Commonwealth or Town designated scenic road’,” said Johnson. But, he repeated, he predicts multiple smaller installations if the ‘large-scale’ definition is included.

Throwing it out there, Johnson said, “Instead of ‘large-scale ground mounted within 1,000 (feet)’, I would strike all of that language and just put ‘ground-mounted solar installations are not permitted within the boundaries…unless existing topographic features (would naturally screen it)…and just put it in.”

“I think it eliminates a lot of gray,” Johnson said.

The public hearing was closed and the board was unanimous in its vote to recommend the article as amended at the Special Town Meeting.

The next regularly scheduled meeting of the Rochester Planning Board will be October 24 at 7:00 pm at the Rochester Town Hall.

Rochester Planning Board

By Jean Perry


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