Solar districts, accessory structures discussed ahead of Town Meeting

Nov 13, 2018

ROCHESTER — Ahead of the upcoming Town Meeting, the Planning Board held multiple public hearings to address proposed zoning bylaw changes and updates. 

The board discussed Tuesday potential bylaw amendments which will head to the Town Meeting on Nov. 19, including the designation of a new solar district and amendments to accessory structure guidelines

One proposed change is the addition of a new solar energy array installation district which would be located on top of the High Street landfill. 

According to Chair Arnold Johnson, the inclusion of the district at Town Meeting is a part of  Rochester’s interest in joining the state Green Communities program, which would make the town eligible for a variety of grants related to energy-efficiency.

One of the five criteria required to become a Green Community includes designating one acre of land as an “as of right” zone for solar energy installations. If the article is approved by Rochester voters, an installation would follow all Planning Board processes and procedures for review and approval.

Johnson clarified that there is no project currently slated for the district, but that the bylaw would open the door for a developer in the future. “It’s just simply a check off on legislation that we need to do for the state Green Communities,” he said.

Dolores Demier asked board members if the proposed changes would only allow solar installations in the designated district. Town Counsel Blair Bailey said that it would be the only place in town that would have the “as of right” use, reducing the restrictions needed for developers. 

“It has no impact on the solar bylaw that we have in place,” said Bailey. “What it does is give you one place in town where, instead of needing a special permit, you’d need a site plan which is a lower threshold permit.”

Another proposed bylaw set to go before Rochester voters involves accessory structures, including the addition of an “intermediate structure” with specific setbacks and the restriction of structures of less than 150 square feet. 

The intermediate structure, measuring 800 square feet with 60-foot side and rear setbacks, would streamline the permitting process for people looking to build structures that were not easily defined in the previous accessory structure bylaw. Also, it would reduce the amount residents requesting variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals, simplifying the process for both sides. 

There are also two new restrictions. The first is restriction states that structures less than 150 square feet cannot to be used for animals, and second states that there cannot be more than two structures per lot. Johnson said that the purpose of the bylaw is to prevent people who have been skirting the permitting requirements for a “large structure” by making multiple smaller ones. 

Demier challenged the idea of restricting the number of accessory structures to two per lot, suggesting that her land would easily be over the limit. Johnson responded, saying that the bylaw cannot affect anything that is preexisting.  

Board members also clarified that although it would be illegal to build additional structures, beyond the proposed limit of two, residents could approach the ZBA for special permission to build it. 

Another concern about the bylaw changes was how it would effect farmers, who regularly need multiple structures. Board member Lee Carr stated that he has heard a lot of concerns from members of the farming community. 

Johnson said that farmers would be protected under Massachusetts general laws, which limit the scope to which zoning bylaws can effect true agricultural operations.

“You have to make a certain amount of money from your land,” added Bailey. “It does have to be a generally a commercial agricultural operation to fall under that exemption.” 

Other proposed changes discussed during the meeting include temporary storage units being restricted to the side and backyards and the multi-family bylaw. Rochester’s Fall Town Meeting will be on Nov. 19 and held at Rochester Memorial School beginning at 7 p.m.