Two views on solar moratorium

First, by Gerry Weiss

On Nov. 8, Lynn Griesemer and Pat DeAngelis of the Town Council introduced a zoning amendment proposing a temporary moratorium on the permitting and approval of large-scale ground-mounted (LSGM) solar photovoltaic installations.

Their reasoning was that Amherst needs to create a bylaw governing those LSGM
installations and, until that bylaw is law, the permitting of such installations could have negative effects on the environment. The Council voted to send the proposal to the Planning Board and the Community Resources Committee.

On Jan. 12, the CRC held a public hearing on the matter, with a presentation by the petitioners, who included newly elected Town Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier, a former member of the Conservation Commission. Public sentiment at that hearing was lopsidedly in favor of a moratorium.

Photo by Irina Iriser on Unsplash

Many people believe that Amherst needs a Solar Installation Bylaw, so the Planning Board and Planning Department will undertake that task. The State of Massachusetts has been promoting such bylaws for the past seven years, and several communities in the state have created them for their towns and cities. So, it makes sense for us to hold off permitting these large-scale installations until a bylaw is created. The CRC hearing on Jan. 12 went late into the night, so deliberation before a vote will take place today.

Rather than go into the details myself of what a moratorium will and will not do, I direct you to Devlin Gauthier’s excellent presentation on the matter.

The most-often-cited reason not to have a moratorium is that our planet is burning up (I agree) and to possibly (are there plans that haven’t been submitted?) postpone a new LSGM installation by even a few months would put Amherst and the planet further behind in our quest to achieve a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

The State of Massachusetts gave guidance for solar installation bylaws in 2014. Amherst is behind the curve on this initiative, but that does not mean we should rush headlong into clear-cutting hundreds of acres of forest without any guidelines. A large solar installation on a former forest is not a win-win.

While an LSGM will likely result in a net gain in carbon sequestration, there will be losses. Forests sequester carbon, turn CO2 into oxygen, filter pollutants out of the air and protect our water supply. Given the extremely short-term gains possible versus the likely costly errors without a bylaw to guide the process, it’s hard to understand why the idea of a moratorium is controversial.

Gerry Weiss has lived in Amherst for 41 years, served on the Select Board, the Charter Commission, The Disability Access Advisory Board and is the current President of Craig’s Doors, having served on the their Board of Directors for the past 11 years.

Second, by Johanna Neumann

Last month, the Planning Board voted (5-2) not to recommend a 18-month moratorium on ground-mount solar arrays larger than an acre to the Town Council.

In my view, the majority of board members felt that the provisions of Amherst’s current bylaw that guides the siting of solar projects and other energy facilities are adequate for the time being. They also felt a discomfort with using moratoriums to dictate public policy outside of an emergency. And they were confident that Amherst residents want our town to continue to play a leadership role in the transition to clean energy. 

Photo by Gene Gallin on Unsplash

Amherst already has a bylaw that guides the siting of energy projects like solar arrays. While this bylaw could be made more specific, it has allowed for the successful construction of ground-mount solar arrays like the one behind Atkins Market in South Amherst, the panels going up now on the old landfill, and the proposed solar array at Hickory Ridge.

The bylaw includes language for setbacks, management plans, and more. The existence of the bylaw has not resulted in major problems with the solar systems installed to date, and so I and other Planning Board members felt that a moratorium isn’t necessary to prevent problems with potential solar installations in the future.

Some of us also felt that governing by moratorium is too reactionary. In the past few years, there have been two proposed moratoriums in town: one to freeze downtown development and the other to freeze solar arrays. Amherst has rules and regulations in place that were thoughtfully developed, and I, at least, feel that moratoriums should be considered a “nuclear option” and used only when absolutely necessary.

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

Lastly, I and other Planning Board members see the need for continued growth in clean energy. The Massachusetts 2050 Roadmap to Decarbonization calls for ​​in-state solar capacity to accelerate from the roughly 400 megawatts (MW) installed per year over the past six years to more than 600 MW installed each year by 2030. An 18-month moratorium on any ground-mount solar project larger than an acre in Amherst would freeze clean energy’s growth right at the time when we need it to take off.

We can do two things at once. We can and must keep growing solar to reduce our climate pollution and we can be conscientious about how, where and when that solar goes. 

Town staff are exploring how to go about funding and structuring a comprehensive solar study, and the Planning Board has initiated conversations around a solar-specific bylaw. I am confident that by working together, we can continue to make progress towards Amherst’s goal of powering itself with 100 percent renewable energy in a way that satisfies most residents.

Johanna Neumann has lived in Amherst since 2011. She has been an advocate and organizer around environmental issues for 20 years and is currently the senior director of Environment America’s campaign for 100 percent renewable energy. She is in her first term as a member of Amherst’s Planning Board. This statement has not been approved by the board.

8 thoughts on “Two views on solar moratorium”

  1. Johanna, at least please cite examples of 250kW LSGM’s in Amherst that have been successfully installed requiring clear cutting of forest land. One thought I’m having is to explore whether 250kW is too small a project to worry about, if as you say it would be about one acre of land, i.e. would we better served placing a moratorium on even larger projects. I don’t know where the 250kW cut off line came from unless that is the definition of LSGM.


  2. Thanks for your reply Johanna. I’m glad we’re having this discussion as it might help clear up what a temporary moratorium will and will not do. First of all, we’re talking about a few months. As far as I know, (you may know differently) there are no projects about to be proposed that would be slowed down if a moratorium is passed. And I say slowed down, because, as stated in Devlin-Gauthier’s report: “Prior to a proposal for a LSGM Solar project, developers must complete other steps, such as delineating wetlands through an ANRAD (Abbreviated Notice of Resource Area Delineation). These processes can take months, and often
    cannot be done in winter, but could be started in the Spring. As ANRADs are not associated with any building projects, they can be done without a building proposal. Secondly, as indicated above, a moratorium would not affect projects already submitted, nor would it affect projects smaller than 250kw. There are other advantages for a temporary moratorium. Some are because the current zoning laws are inadequate (here is where we disagree) to address the many potential impacts of large scale installations. Currently, our bylaws would allow such installations with Site Plan Review or By Right; those bylaws do not take into account wildlife accommodations, impact on personal wells, and the decommissioning process. Again, quoting from the above report: ” Developing a bylaw which is equitably applied will protect
    both the Town of Amherst and solar developers from litigation stemming from inconsistent regulation and parameters.” There just is so much as risk by allowing LSGM’s without an adequate bylaw in place, with so little gain.


  3. Johanna, a question if I may……..If you think we have an adequate bylaw covering the installation of LSGM’s, are you therefore not in favor of Amherst creating an LSGM bylaw?


    1. Thanks for the question, Gerry, and sorry if my comments in the post weren’t clear. I am in favor of Amherst creating a bylaw that specifically addresses large scale ground mounted solar projects, and large scale energy storage projects for that matter. Just because what I think is adequate for now and don’t feel it’s so deficient that we should freeze all solar development, doesn’t mean our current rules/regulations couldn’t be improved. I’m very interested in the results of a solar study, very interested to incorporate best practices learned from the research and from other communities, and very interested in knowing what we can do to incentivize solar development in the places where, as a community, we want it.


  4. Please clarify: Is a moratorium on > 1 acre LSGM in place? I hope not. We do not need it. Also, is construction of a LSGM on the old landfill site across Route 9 from the transfer station moving ahead without delay? I hope so. There is no need to wait 18 months for new LSGM development. As the above articles explain, there are plenty of existing model regulations in other Massachusetts towns and cities. They can be used as prototypes. Amherst has been wanting LSGMs for several years, so let’s finally do something.

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    1. No moratorium has yet been enacted. The proposal pertains to projects producing 250kW DC or more. Solar projects that have already been permitted (such as that on the old landfill) are not affected.


      1. And to convert 250kw DC to layman’s terms – based on what I learned in the planning board meetings, producing that much power would require roughly an acre of solar panels using today’s technology.


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