Hopkinton officials trying to balance competing interests in revised solar rules

Hopkinton officials trying to balance competing interests in revised solar rules

The Westerly Sun
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HOPKINTON — Residents will have a chance to weigh in on proposed amendments to the town’s solar energy ordinance at a public hearing on Oct. 15. 

Town Council President Frank Landolfi said he hoped the hearing would encourage residents to provide their input and produce a balanced ordinance that more effectively serves the needs of both developers and residents.

“I would like to see all of the stakeholders provide input, the Town Council, various boards and commissions and the residents,” he said. “The objective should be to strike a balance between responsible development and the various resident concerns. The current ordinance was jointly created with the Planning Board, and we all realize it needs to be amended.”

Town Planner James Lamphere and Planning Clerk Sean Henry have been working on the amendments to the ordinance, which was enacted in 2016 and regulates the siting, building, configuration and decommissioning of nonresidential photovoltaic energy systems. It has already been amended twice, based on recommendations coming out of two joint meetings of the Town Council and the Planning Board, the first on July 18 and the second on July 23.

One of the newly proposed amendments would limit the amount of land that can be covered by solar panels, if the project requires a zoning change from residential to commercial. It does not, however, prohibit or restrict the rezoning of property for solar development, an increasingly common occurrence that has provoked objections from residents.

“The parcels that are zoned RFR 80 [residential] and the applicant wants rezoned, no more than 30 percent of the parcel shall be covered with panels,” Lamphere said. “Basically, the intent there was for the surrounding residents that live in homes that are going to continue to be zoned residential, that we didn’t want the density to exceed what you would normally expect if they were residences.”

In existing commercial and manufacturing zones, solar panels can cover up to 75 percent of the property.

Clear-cutting is addressed in another proposed amendment.

“Clearing any existing vegetation on the subject parcel for the purpose of constructing, operating or maintaining a PSES [photovoltaic solar energy system] shall be limited to a maximum of 40 percent of the total area of the parcel,” the proposed amendment states. “Clearing of any vegetation within the front, rear and sideboard setback areas is prohibited, unless specifically approved by the Planning Board.”

There is also a more stringent sediment and soil erosion proposal, which would require that erosion not only be controlled but “completely contained” on the parcel during construction.

In addition, the decommissioning of the installation when it is no longer producing power would have to include not only the removals of solar panels and their mounts but all underground materials, such as transmission lines.

Following the council’s recent approvals of zoning changes for several large solar projects, including some on  forested land, residents concerned about widespread clear-cutting began to mobilize.

A group of residents coalesced against an application to build a large solar energy facility on three properties in the Old Depot Road neighborhood and hired attorney James Donnelly to represent them. The Hopkinton Planning Board has recommended rejecting the project on the grounds that it is not consistent with the town’s comprehensive plan. Opponents of the project have asked the council to follow the board’s recommendation.

Eric Bibler, a resident who has criticized the town’s approach to approving zoning changes for solar projects, said the proposed amendments did not address his principal complaint: rezoning.

“The real issue for Hopkinton residents is that they want their Town Council to stop bending over backwards to accommodate developers by engaging in ‘spot zoning’ to rezone residential parcels for industrial use in a misguided attempt to increase the town's tax revenue,” he said in an email message. “For the developers and their advocates on the Town Council, it’s all about the money.

“The Planning Board has fought hard to preserve the integrity of the planning process and to defend the community development goals articulated in the town’s Comprehensive Plan, including the preservation of Hopkinton's rural character.” Bibler continued. “The scale of these industrial power plants is massive — over 100 acres in some instances — and developers are proposing to install them in residential zones all over town.”

“Tragically, because of the willingness of some Town Council members, including the president, to roll out the welcome mat for solar profiteers, regardless of zoning restrictions, every residential neighborhood in every corner of Hopkinton is now threatened with solar sprawl.”

Landolfi said he was hopeful that the revisions, once approved, would produce an ordinance that would be satisfactory to everyone.

“I am hopeful that a well-thought-out revision can be created that we can all live with,” he said.




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