Citizen petition attempts to stem solar farm proliferation

Sep 19, 2017

A citizen petition in Rochester is attempting to stem a proliferation of solar farms in the town by placing an article on Rochester's Special Town Meeting warrant that will add a solar farm bylaw amendment to Rochester's zoning bylaws—but Rochester's Planning Board has no current plans to back it.

The article proposes a change to Rochester's bylaws regarding solar farm installations, specifically by inserting wording that states, "Large scale ground mounted solar installations are not allowed within 1,000 feet of any scenic highway unless topographic features prohibit a view already."

The petition was submitted as part of a response to a solar farm proposal on Mendell Road, which has seen a number of protests from abutters and concerned citizens. The Mendell Road solar farm will erect 9,000 solar panels on 13 acres of the 67-acre property. It will also clear-cut 7 acres of trees in order to create a berm and 8-foot fence to hide the view of the solar panels, something to which some town residents stringently object.

Massachusetts General Laws note that a citizen petition with 100 or more signatures must, by statute, be placed on a town's meeting warrant.

As part of a citizen petition article, the Planning Board will hold a public hearing on the petition. Rochester Planning Board Chairman Arnie Johnson indicated that the public hearing would likely be held at the Planning Board's first October meeting.

From there, the Planning Board has three options; recommending that the Selectmen support the petition, recommending that they do not support it, or recommending that the petition be withdrawn on the Town Meeting floor.

Johnson made it clear that the Planning Board would not be supporting the petition. While in attendance at the Board of Selectmen meeting where the article was presented, Johnson said the Planning Board was not in favor of the petition for a number of reasons, mainly because the board members did not feel the petition was legally valid, and would unreasonably strip property owners of their rights.

"There is only one scenic highway in Rochester, and it's Route 105," Johnson noted. "Route 105 is 5 miles long. If you take 1,000 feet off of each side of it, that's nearly 2 miles that you've shaved off of the land area."

"This petition, as worded, would probably cost Rochester a lot of money," Selectman Brad Morse pointed out. He noted that the way the petition was worded, most roads in Rochester would fall under the bylaw.

Selectman Naida Parker noted that only petitioners could withdraw a petition, and that according to Massachusetts General Law, neither the Planning Board nor the Board of Selectmen could strike the motion off of the ballot. She forewarned that even if the proposal is passed by the town, though, it may not pass legal muster officially. "If we did pass this and designate all the roads, it would prohibit solar farms from most of Rochester," she added. "That's not what the state wants, and I find it hard to believe that the Attorney General would allow that bylaw to be passed."

The Board of Selectmen chose to neither back nor oppose the citizen petition article, as Morse noted that the Planning Board needed to hold their public hearing on the article and make a recommendation first.