GREAT BARRINGTON -- When Robert Coons realized he could save his farm by leasing some of his 200 acres to a solar developer, he didn't know he was about to set off a zoning controversy.
He thought he was doing something good -- for both himself and the environment.
"It's not the option that makes us the most money," Coons said at a February informational meeting with his worried neighbor, the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School. "Do we sell our land to the highest bidder? To a developer who doesn't care?"
While there is widespread support in this town for solar energy, not everyone thinks big solar arrays are pretty.
And not everyone wants them in their backyard.
That's why in the midst of the Coons episode, town officials opened up the books only to find that there wasn't much in the way of zoning regulations for solar energy systems.
This sent the town Planning Board to the drawing board to write a bylaw amendment. Incorporating input from residents, the measure is heading to annual town meeting for a vote this May.
It's good timing.
Massachusetts is one of the top five leading producers of solar power in the United States, and with an upswing in state incentives for solar development, the aesthetic problem could set off more than a few battles.
A handful of large commercial arrays built on industrial sites have popped up quickly in town over the last year. One, for instance, went into a brownfield, and is significantly lowering the electric bills of the town and the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.
Eyebrows went up over large arrays recently built next to Guido's Marketplace and Barrington Brewery & Restaurant, since the industrial-looking panels appeared so quickly and changed the landscape.
For Guido's, the array will someday completely eliminate its electricity costs.
But there is concern about areas like the Coons' on the outskirts of town, where many homes sit on at least several acres, and co-exist with farms.
The proposed regulations automatically allow projects of 750-square feet or more in those areas; commercial installations there would face more Planning Board scrutiny, however.
Many Steiner School officials and parents said while they support solar energy, they were worried about Kearsarge Energy's 10- to 12 acre commercial array with 7-foot panels constructed 400 feet from the school's early childhood building and nursery/kindergarten playgrounds.
When Kearsarge put to rest a few of the school's concerns about safety, it became clear that the problem was that the array was not beautiful.
At the time, school officials said it could become a visual disaster with the potential to hit the Waldorf School's financial future, since one of its selling points is to provide an educational experience amid that bucolic location off West Plain Road.
"The school is in the same position as Bob Coons," said school board member Holly Henderson-Fisher, of the school's financial struggles.
Town building inspector Edwin May didn't think the array should go there either, and rejected Kearsarge's request for a building permit. The town has zoned that area for residential and agricultural use, May said, not "light industrial," which is how he classified Kearsarge's project.
But May didn't have much of a regulation to work with: he interpreted all he had in the bylaws, state law that says solar systems should be reasonably regulated and can't be prohibited unless they pose a danger.
"The way this is written, you could put [solar] anywhere," said Zoning Board of Appeals member John Katz at a packed hearing last month that upheld inspector May's ruling.
May thought he was doing his job by refusing to issue the permit.
And the town's lawyer, David Doneski, agreed, and sent his opinion to the ZBA, which used it, in part, to make its decision.
That ZBA ruling is now being appealed in Massachusetts Land Court, according to Kearsarge attorney Peter Puciloski. He said he expects a good outcome for his client.
Puciloski also said this case could be dismissed since the town now has a comprehensive solar bylaw amendment ready for town meeting.
"This case is unusual because it appears that [Kearsarge's] application complies with the proposed zoning amendment in Great Barrington," he said. "So it may be that if the amendment passes, it would be faster to simply apply for special permit."
Watertown-based Kearsarge and the Steiner School are working things out. And this sort of collaboration between abutters over large solar arrays may become more frequent, since the proposed bylaws are favorable to farmers who find themselves in the same boat as Coons.
But farmers won't be able to just turn all their land into one big solar installation, said Planning Board member Jonathan Hankin.
The proposed regulations would stop farmers from building arrays on more than 20 percent of their land, or 15 acres -- whichever is less, he added.
"You're not going to see huge farms all solar," he said.
Hankin, who lives down the street from Kearsarge's proposed array, says he is in favor of the project. He said the board favors solar energy, and tried to clarify where arrays can be built.
Depending on the scale, a project would be regulated either by requiring a special permit from the Select Board, or a site plan review by the Planning Board.
Hankin said the board looked carefully at the residentially zoned areas of town that get the most sun, and tried to reasonably regulate there.
"The logical ones will be where there is more open space and less shade, less developed and where the farms are," he said, noting that this creates competition between solar arrays and farms.
And Hankin added that the proposed bylaw requires commercial arrays to be decommissioned when they are no longer in use.
Kearsarge, for instance, will remove the Coons farm array in 20-years, and restore the area to farmland. Three central Massachusetts municipalities have a 20-year contract to buy discounted energy from the solar production of Kearsarge's array.
Local attorney Ira Kaplan helped the Steiner School navigate the Kearsarge project, and said he has represented a good deal of clients for solar-related work. He said he thinks the town's regulations are reasonable as they are now, since solar production is a kind of industrial process, as inspector May ruled in the Kearsage case.
"Everybody's in favor of solar," he said. "That's not controversial. But many towns have written in [to bylaws] the effect of solar on the neighborhood and property values."
The proposed regulations say nothing about about property values. But they do address preserving "the character of residential neighborhoods," and encourage large installations to be situated and constructed in aesthetically palatable ways; solar developers will have to put everything from lighting to noise and screening under the Planning Board's microscope.
The proposed bylaws also encourage building arrays where people are less likely to mind looking at them, like rooftops, brownfields and industrial land.
Kaplan said he applauds the Planning Board's attempt to clarify the law. But he said that as a town resident, he worries that the proposed bylaw gives that board too much discretion over solar projects in all but industrial areas, and leaves two residential zones with less protection from large-scale solar projects.
His concern is for those neighborhoods like Coons', on the outskirts of town, where he says large solar arrays could ruin the views and property values.
So does Holly Hamer. She lives in the Coons' neighborhood, and said she is running for the Planning Board because she doesn't think the proposed regulations are stringent enough to protect townspeople from a solar farm's potential to cut down property values.
"Zoning is designed to help protect those [property] assets," she said. "People are also paying high taxes."
Hamer said another sticking point is nonlocal companies eyeing this land for a profit that will go elsewhere.
"I'm all for solar and clean alternative power," she said. "I'm not all for what I think of as carpetbaggers coming in and plucking low-hanging fruit; land is cheap in the Berkshires and it's hard to make a living."
The smaller solar systems won't be as controversial, however. Roof-mounted panels would be allowed in every area of town, and small solar arrays up to 750 square feet permitted in most zones except the Great Barrington downtown core and Housatonic Village Center.
Hankin said he hopes these proposed regulations meet with voter approval. He insists that these solar bylaws are necessary, and added that without them, the town may find itself paying a pretty penny to defend future appeals as solar developers come here looking for sunny, open land.
"If the solar bylaw fails at Town Meeting, then we have solar completely unregulated everywhere," he said.
Meanwhile, Steiner School board of trustees' President Tom Sternal said that after a few tense months, Kearsarge, Coons and the Steiner School are working collaboratively, and the only real concern the school has at this point is preserving that natural landscape as much as possible.
"We're focusing on a vegetative barrier or buffer between the school and the project," Sternal said.
Kearsarge President Andrew Bernstein said the company is on board with this.
"The school has ideas about what they want outside, and we'd like to do something that meets their needs to minimize [the array] and work on screening it," he said.
Sternal also said the school and Kearsarge may collaborate on an alternative energy curriculum, given what may likely end up in the school's backyard.
"We want to use this as a learning tool,' he said.
Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871.