State and local law conflict regarding the construction of solar arrays: A case study from Hatfield Reply

A recent conflict in Hatfield highlights a lack of consistency in the law at the state and local level regarding where a commercial solar array can be constructed, which is nothing more than a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, and aggravated by a tinge of a “not in my back yard” sentiment among those who oppose the construction of a commercial solar array near their homes.

According to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, the conflict in Hatfield involves Citizens Enterprises Corp, which the daily newspaper reported is headed by Joseph Kennedy II, and 19 residents.

The energy company wants to install a 2 megawatt solar array on a 35 acre parcel, which is zoned Rural Residential by the town.  However, the town’s bylaws state that renewable energy generation facilities need to be located in areas zoned Industrial or Light Industrial.  But Massachusetts law states that:

“No zoning ordinance or by-law shall prohibit or unreasonably regulate the installation of solar energy systems or the building of structures that facilitate the collection of solar energy, except where necessary to protect the public health, safety or welfare.”

It stands to reason that this language was incorporated into the state law because legislators anticipated that renewable energy efforts would meet opposition from those who do not want to them impeding on their views.

So, as would be expected, those that oppose the Hatfield solar project think that they are in the right and those who propose the plan think that they are in the right.

Many western Massachusetts towns have already passed a commercial solar bylaw to regulate their construction and some bylaws conflict with the state law.  Hatfield currently does not have one, but has started to do so.  In the absence of a bylaw, solar energy companies can still build an array, but with less town control.  Citizens Enterprise Corporation has recently pulled a building permit for their project.

Lawsuits can be expected in the future if communities do not take into consideration state law when either drafting their solar bylaw or when denying permission to build a solar array.  If the citizens of cities and towns in Massachusetts want more control over where commercial solar arrays can be placed, municipalities should bring their concerns to their state representatives and state senators in an effort to change the existing law to give cities and towns more control of where solar arrays can be sited.

Another option is to simply change our perceptions of solar arrays as we seek to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and combat climate change.  When people go to the Netherlands, for example, they don’t consider the windmills there to be an eyesore.  They consider them to be a part of the cultural landscape.  Perhaps it would be beneficial to perceive solar arrays as part of the American cultural landscape? I like them to view them as an indication of a brighter and cleaner future.

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