EASTHAMPTON – The Planning Board hosted a public hearing with the city’s Ordinance Committee to discuss a proposed amendment on solar installations on certain new construction.
City Councilors and Ordinance Committee members Owen Zaret and Salem Derby have proposed a zoning ordinance that would require new construction and expansion projects over 10,000 square feet or multi-unit housing over 10 units to include solar power in 50 percent or more of usable roof space or its equivalent. It would also require solar canopies over parking areas.
In a document prepared by Zaret and Derby, they explained that as the city of Easthampton strives to become more sustainable and greener, it must continue to adopt policies that incorporate the use of renewable and clean energies into construction.
While no vote was taken to adopt the amendment, there was a lengthy conversation in ways to support it in the best way possible for the city.
Board Member James Zarvis showed his support of the amendment.
“This is a really important project that makes a big difference in the community. I love that you took the time to put this forward, I think it is very progressive and forward-thinking, and I am definitely going to be someone that is looking to find a way to implement this,” Zarvis said.
Harry Schumann, another board member, questioned what the cost of adding solar would be.
Zarvis echoed that concern and shared that while he feels that this amendment is important, he does not want to make it impossible for developers to develop in the city.
Zarvis, who recently added panels to his roof, shared his experience during the meeting. He noted that solar panels can be installed but there is a stage at the end of the process where an electric company has to approve or deny you. Zarvis shared that the gentlemen who he worked with from Northeast Solar told him that one of the approvals was to have a 60 percent shading minimum.
He continued to point out that the amendment states 50 percent and he would dislike putting an amendment in for someone who has 52 percent shade and a system that can never be turned on.
City Planner Jeffrey Bagg expressed his belief that fitting this concept into the city’s zoning might take a little bit more time and urged the board not to make a decision until they clarify whether this is a requirement versus an incentive.
Bagg suggested that they reach out to the city’s Energy Committee because he believes it would be good to preview it with them before action is taken, as they may have helpful information.
Bagg also noted that the day of the meeting, they received a note saying that this amendment is based on one utilized in Watertown and he does not know if the 10,000-square-foot commercial or multi-unit threshold applies to the city of Easthampton. He indicated the square footage may be too big a measurement or too little. Bagg said that the city of Easthampton may not be hitting the size and scale the same as Watertown, so this amendment could affect the smaller businesses. He then suggested making this amendment for bigger projects.
Since this amendment could be costly, Bagg suggested making an opt-out option for businesses that may not be able to afford it to prevent hurting a project.
River Valley Co-Op’s General Manager Rochelle Prunty spoke to share her experience with adding solar panels to the new Easthampton store. She said that some things may be challenging for some people.
Prunty mentioned the upfront feasibility and engineering cost for their project was about $150,000, which was a risky investment that they had to make because they did not know what the outcome would be.
She continued to say that there are also issues with the interconnection agreement portion of the solar. She explained that they applied for the agreement the first week of February 2020 but did not receive it until August of last year. While that was a long wait, she said it was the fastest agreement people have seen, because it could take up to a year and a half to receive one.
“I think this is great, I just would not want to see us get into a situation where the infrastructure for solar to make solar work with the utilities in Western Massachusetts is holding up development in Easthampton,” Prunty shared.
Councilor Thomas Peake expressed that if there are city requirements making solar panels harder to get, then they should address them before requiring them. He added that whatever final decision they come up with, it should say that solar panels will not work for every building.
Planning Board Chair Jesse Belcher-Timme agreed with Peake and acknowledged that the solar bylaw needs revamping and restarting from scratch.
To keep the amendment moving along but also tackle updating the solar bylaw, the board and committee voted to continue both discussions to April 13 at 6 p.m.
“The hope is that during that time we can prepare and start a second amendment to address a bunch of other elements and have that hearing process ready for April 13. It takes about four to six weeks to set it all up until it is actually ready for a hearing,” Bagg said.