HARVARD -- The selectmen Tuesday night discussed calling a Special Town Meeting this summer to address issues that have stalled a new solar initiative.
The good news is that Harvard's branch of the Solarize Mass project is a success, with 75 families on board. However, not everybody who wants to participate can do so, according to one of the solar group's founding members, Worth Robbins.
Site assessments showed that some locales were not suitable for solar installations for various reasons, Robbins told the board, for example, if the area does not get enough sun or the roofs of some houses can't support the weight of a solar array.
So the group, the members of which also include Energy Advisory Committee members Jim Elkind and Eric Broadbent, set about finding a place to build "solar gardens," communal facilities those homeowners could tap into.
"In October, we started testing that out," Robbins said.
First, they signed up 39 potential participants, 36 residential and three businesses. Then, they lined up a local contractor to build the system, which they planned to site at the Horowitz's residential property on Woodchuck Hill Road.
But when they applied for a permit, the effort came to a halt. The building inspector, acting as zoning officer, said no.
"We felt this (plan) would be feasible, despite zoning laws," Robbins explained, due, in part, to a provision in Massachusetts General Laws that states local zoning can't
Next, they took their cause to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which upheld the zoning officer's decision. Town Counsel opined that the ruling didn't violate state law because it was not "a prohibition" if the facility could be located someplace else, Robbins said.
Rejection in hand, they asked BOS Chairman Lucy Wallace if the board would send out a request for proposals to build a facility in the Town Meeting-approved solar overlay district identified as part of the town's state-sanctioned Green Community designation, that is, the former landfill next to the transfer station.
They've also applied for a permit to site a solar facility on a privately owned parcel within the commercial district on Ayer Road, but Robbins said he didn't hold out much hope that idea would pass muster with the zoning officer, either.
Meanwhile, Broadbent has been having conversations with DPW Director Rich Nota about the transfer station option. Based on those chats and a recent site walk with Nota, Broadbent said he's "doubtful" it's a suitable location, "but we need to find out."
With no guiding "usage plan" for the landfill site as a whole, Nota has been using it as a staging area to stockpile materials for road projects, store sand and stone and dump stumps. He could possibly "rearrange it," to accommodate the solar facility, perhaps with cooperative caveats and some "re-engineering," Broadbent said, but he questioned if its worth it, since there are other issues that might make the site undesirable for the purpose.
For example, the outstanding matter of closure. The landfill, which closed in the 1980's, before new state regulations for capping were in effect, might not meet the new criteria, with no closure letter on file. If a building project were proposed, DEP might require the town to correct the situation or even start from scratch, members speculated.
Town Administrator Tim Bragan said that was unlikely. Thousands of municipal dumps across the country and hundreds state wide are in precisely the same situation, he said.
Wallace suggested a sit-down with Nota to find out how important the area is to him as a staging area and if he could work around the solar garden. She didn't say whether the plan should be reconsidered based on his response but she seemed to be suggesting it.
The question then becomes whether or not the overlay district identified in the Green Community plant is still viable.
Johnson asked how much capacity the town is likely to need over the next five or six years.
The town could use two megawatts of power to offset its electric usage, he was told.
That said, it seems sensible to put a town system on town property, the group agreed. But the 4-acre landfill area site could only provide about one percent of needed solar energy input.
On the non-municipal side, individual sign-ons could be doubled from the current number over the next couple of years.
Johnson said it's not up to the selectmen to sort out the zoning issues, but to help the solar group move forward. "It's not our purview to interpret bylaws but to help make use of the existing overlay district," he said.
To that end, he asked if the transfer station site is big enough to house the 249.9-kilowatt facility the group has in mind for a solar garden there.
Robbins said that if the "as of right" clause in state law was at issue, the number could be ratcheted up to 250 to meet the overlay requirement. But the 4-acre site isn't big enough to interest a commercial developer, he added.
Worst case, if the landfill site comes up short and the solar garden proposal for the Ayer Road C-district is denied and no other options exist, Robbins said his group could take the matter to court. "Then we go back to general laws" stating that bylaws can't prohibit solar facilities, he said.
Robbins said the communal facility option is a landmark in the Solarize Mass program. "We're the first in the state to be given this accommodation," he said.
In the end, it's all about getting grants promised by the program if criteria are met. The selectmen said the best solution to the dilemma might be to relocate the overlay district or amend zoning bylaws, or both.
Either way, there are application deadlines coming up. But Elkind said they might be flexible. "We're pioneers, there's no precedent," he said. But the state will want to see "meaningful progress."
The take-away was that the board would talk to Nota, ask the Energy Committee to weigh in and contact the Planning Board with the aim of drafing a solar bylaw to solve the problem.
Proposals would then be presented at the Special Town Meeting, probably in August.