Developers of a proposed solar energy project on Sarah Sherman Road will have to abide by the 100-foot property setbacks of the solar bylaw and reconfigure its placement of solar arrays after the Rochester Zoning Board of Appeals on November 8 denied Clean Energy Collective’s request for setback relief.
According to Greg Carey from CEC, the variance would have allowed the 7-acre project to be built on the 21-acre parcel at a location less visible to nearby residences along Sarah Sherman Road and Alley Road. It would also scale down the area of solar arrays by about 25 percent as opposed to siting the solar field in another area with more visibility requiring more extensive screening.
Carey described CEC’s proposed 1-megawatt “community solar” project as an opportunity to offer a renewable energy option to residents in the community that for any given reason are unable to access renewable energy such as solar. The project he said, has been in the planning stage for over a year now, producing several layout options with this one resulting in a more financially feasible plan along with the benefit of mitigating the visual impact on the neighborhood.
The Conservation has issued an Order of Conditions for the site in regards to its proximity to the wetlands, Carey stated, adding that this plan would potentially avoid some concerns the Planning Board has held in past solar project approvals.
Clean Energy Collective has already developed two other solar farms in Rochester on Perry’s Lane and Mattapoisett Road, both of which needed Planning Board approval.
“One of the biggest issues that we’ve faced with the Planning Board members is the visibility of the solar project, particularly from the main roads and from residential abutters,” said Carey. “So when we looked at this site, we tried to find an area of the site that was the most remote, most removed from Sarah Sherman Road and least visible, if you will. We came up with a plan that tried to move the solar array … as far away from Sarah Sherman Road as possible.”
The only abutting property owner that would be affected, Carey said, is Ed Ashley whose adjacent 150 acres consist mainly of agricultural land and bogs.
Ashley submitted a letter endorsing the variance that would allow solar arrays 40, 65, and 50 feet from the west, south, and east sides, respectively.
“I support the efforts to build clean renewable energy in Rochester and I urge the ZBA to approve CEC’s application,” Ashley wrote in the letter that ZBA Chairman Richard Cutler read aloud.
In order to receive a variance, the petitioner must satisfy the three requirements, which includes demonstrating a financial hardship. That hardship, explained Evan Watson of Prime Engineering, is that the northern section of the land – the site that would abide by the solar bylaw’s 100-foot setback minimum – is less accommodating for solar as it is sloped and more vegetated and would decrease the solar energy generating capacity because of shading, making the project less financially lucrative.
“If we use the southern area for racking, we can use less area than we would’ve used if we used the 100-foot setback throughout the whole site,” Watson stated.
Furthermore, Carey added, “Because of the issue with screening, … the more you move it east the more visible it’s going to become.”
“It’s very rare for these solar projects to come before the ZBA,” said Cutler, “because most of the time they’re very large pieces of property and there are no setback requirements.”
After some questions from board members and abutters, the board closed the pubic hearing and debated the issue. ZBA member David Arancio was the first to give his opinion, prompting other board members to agree with him.
“I think it’s pretty clear,” said Arancio. “I understand what the applicant is trying to obtain. I believe that the town has had numerous projects that have become before the Planning Board and there’s a reason why the bylaw was instituted, and I understand that the [Ashley] property … is not being used as residential, but … I believe that the intent of the bylaw was for the best intent for the town as a whole and this is a commercial venture, it is not a residential venture, and I believe that if they have the means to stay within the 100-foot setback, they should try to achieve that.”
ZBA member Kirby Gilmore concurred, saying, “I agree with David. I don’t think that … has met the standard – the second standard in respect to financial hardship. … [To] maximize profits doesn’t qualify as a substantial hardship.”
For ZBA member Tom Flynn, “I think solar projects are great, but … tonight, as a ZBA, we need to enforce the bylaw and we need to apply the standard that is the law in Massachusetts and I don’t believe that the petitioner has met the standard for substantial hardship.”
Also, added Cutler, “This is a self-created hardship that’s being presented to us, and it does look like it’s being shoehorned into the site.”
“I feel for the abutters,” said ZBA member Davis Sullivan. “As concealed as the site is, they still have concerns with access roads, rights of way, property values, so I’d be inclined to agree….”
The board denied the variance in a unanimous vote.
Also during the meeting, the public hearing for a variance for Eric and Sue Morad, 552 Snipatuit Road, was continued until December 13 so that town counsel could assist the board in drafting a decision that would satisfy all of the board’s concerns.
The Morads want to build a 1,000 square-foot accessory structure in excess of the size allowed by the zoning bylaw, which would eventually be converted into a single-family house. The original house would be demolished as no lot may contain two houses. Furthermore, the new structure would be built behind an existing barn; therefore, once the new structure was converted into a house, it would be located behind the barn, and the bylaw prohibits accessory structures to be located in front of a dwelling.
Morad explained that he needed to execute the plan in this way in order to avoid a second mortgage. He said he and his wife would move into the new structure and the current house, which is only ten feet from the road, would be removed.
“Town counsel suggests [to] put something in there about the time frame and … a time limit,” said Cutler. He later added, “In this case, I think the stipulations can be rather interesting.”
The board preferred to have town counsel draft a decision that could encompass all the relief the Morads are seeking, with Flynn stating, “I would much rather give them a decision that’s going to allow them to accomplish what they want.”
The next meeting of the Rochester Zoning Board of Appeals is scheduled for December 13 at 7:30 pm at the Rochester Town Hall.
Rochester Zoning Board of Appeals
By Jean Perry