Pittsfield tightens grip on solar projects

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PITTSFIELD — Commercial solar projects are no longer allowed in the city's residential neighborhoods.

The City Council this week approved a more-stringent set of solar regulations that separate solar projects by size into three tiers and shift larger ones outside residential districts. The city's Zoning Board of Appeals petitioned the council in January to pass the legislation.

The proposal came 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, drawing immediate outcry from the lakeside neighborhood.

Community Development Director Deanna Ruffer said there are already 11 solar projects within the city's residential districts and 14 total citywide — facts that she said put Pittsfield among communities with the most solar power per resident nationwide.

She said the zoning board needs the ordinance to protect residents from solar projects moving in next door, likening the prospect to "putting a manufacturing facility in the middle of a neighborhood."

"Commercial arrays have different impacts and don't belong in residential neighborhoods," she told councilors before the vote.

Nate Joyner, the city's permitting coordinator, said there are two more solar projects in the pipeline. Five were approved in 2016.

"It's becoming more popular, and the systems are getting larger over time," he said.

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And as solar becomes more prevalent in the state, he said, comparably low property values in Pittsfield make the city more of a target for solar developers. He said the goal is to steer these companies toward already-disturbed land in the city's commercial and industrial districts.

But the new ordinance didn't land without opposition from some residents who argued that it was too restrictive of solar development.

"The ordinance is ill-conceived," said city resident Lewis Schiller, who called the measure "a NIMBY response" in an apparent reference to the acronym for "not in my backyard."

Schiller and others pointed to the fact that residential is the city's dominant zoning, which means the ordinance makes limited room for solar.

John Barry, also a city resident, said the city should be encouraging solar development rather than prohibiting it.

"It flies in the face of the Green Communities Act," agreed Kermit Goodman, a city resident. "It flies in the face of the city's master plan."

Michele Rivers Murphy, who organized dozens of her neighbors against the fizzled solar proposal at Pontoosuc Lake Country Club, said there was no reason to put one of the area's largest solar fields "smack in the middle" of her thickly settled neighborhood.

"The question becomes: Is it greed?" she told councilors, "or is it green?"

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


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