Pittsfield aims to tighten restrictions on solar developments

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PITTSFIELD — Larger-scale solar developments don't belong in residential neighborhoods.

That's the thrust of a city ordinance that could take effect this spring.

The ordinance, referred to the city's Community Development Board this week by the City Council, would separate solar projects by size into three tiers and shifts larger ones outside residential districts.

The proposal comes on the heels of a heated debate over a now-defunct proposal from a Boston company to put 18,000 solar panels across 25 acres at Pontoosuc Lake Country Club. It drew immediate outcry from the lakeside neighborhood, with residents arguing that it was too large, that it would obstruct their view, mar natural resources, and that it wasn't in keeping with the residential district between the city's twin lakes.

Solar developments have become more numerous in recent years, in an effort to expand the use of green energy in lieu of fossil fuels.

Nate Joyner, the city's permitting coordinator, said the board already had wanted to solidify the city's approach to solar developments, and issues with the Pontoosuc plan served as "a reminder" that the city should have a streamlined strategy.

The proposed ordinance sets out to establish clear standards for constructing and decommissioning solar projects, while minimizing "impacts on scenic, natural and historic resources," the draft states. It was brought forward by the city's Community Development Department, and the Zoning Board Appeals voted this month to petition the City Council for approval.

Medium and large-scale developments would be relegated to the city's business, commercial and industrial districts under the proposed ordinance. They also would need to be at least 50 feet back from all property lines, at least 200 feet from any residence and would need to take steps to minimize any visual impacts, effects on natural resources and on public safety.

Small-scale solar developments would be permitted in all city districts. They would need to be at least 25 feet from all property lines, at least 200 feet from any residence, and would need to use vegetation and screening to shield the panels from public view.

A solar facility would be required to remove all materials from the site and return it to its natural state within 150 days after operations cease, the plan states. And solar applicants would be required to provide the city with money — in the form of a bond or an escrow account — to cover the cost of removal in the event the site is abandoned and the city must remove all materials.

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ZBA Chairman Albert Ingegni said the ordinance would formalize the types of decisions board members already make.

"We need to get this out there as quickly as possible so we can address this as a city in a more intelligent manner," he said during a recent meeting.

Michele Rivers Murphy, a spokeswoman for opponents of the solar project at Pontoosuc and a resident of the neighborhood, said she's happy the city took this ordinance on so she didn't have to.

"I planned on petitioning the city for stricter regs in residential areas," she said. "These were not designed for residential areas."

Commercial and industrial districts consist of land that already is disturbed, Murphy said. She said solar developments belong there, where they can improve the property rather than degrade a natural resource with 18-wheelers and sometimes-hazardous materials.

"Does that belong in neighborhood? Of course not," she said.

She said she's grateful to the city for hearing residents in public meetings and for protecting the natural resources in her neighborhood. Still, she said she feels obligated to push for more.

She said she'll ask for small-scale facilities to get additional scrutiny because of the damage they can do. It feels like too few people are thinking about the long-term consequences of ground-mounted solar, she said.

"This is not just an our backyard problem," she said. "This is a larger problem."

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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