Northampton solar policy change snags on trees

NORTHAMPTON — A proposed policy change that would free solar-power developers from a strict tree preservation requirement was pushed back for additional consideration Monday at a joint meeting of a City Council committee and the Planning Board.

“This makes me feel like we need to step back and start all over,” said Lilly Lombard, who chairs the Public Shade Tree Commission.

The meeting drew substantial public comment, almost all of which urged the two bodies to take more time on the changes, and touted the importance of preserving trees.

“I encourage the board to slow down,” said Amy Meltzer, echoing a widely spoken recommendation that was ultimately heeded.

Under the present ordinance, large-scale ground-mounted solar projects requiring the removal of more than 25,000 board feet of timber are not permitted. Board feet is an industry term that applies to commercially usable timber. Initially, the planning department changed that limit to more than 5 acres of forest canopy, while also inserting a number of conditions where the limit could be waived.

However, a subsequent revision by Alan Seewald, the city’s attorney, got rid of the prohibition entirely. At the meeting, Seewald said state law leaves most restrictions on solar development open to significant legal challenge. He said he wasn’t particularly happy with this, however.

“It is completely out of date,” he said. “We’re stuck with this and this is what we have to apply.”

However, Seewald did say that he sympathized with wanting to protect the tree canopy, and that the city could come up with a standard for solar projects of any size that would be related to the harm that tree removal would cause in terms of carbon footprint on a case-by-case basis.

“Let’s be very specific about what we’re doing,” he said.

Speaking after the meeting, Senior Land Planner Carolyn Misch said that even if there were no tree removal limit, any project would still have to be approved by the Planning Board.

Another major change to the ordinance would be the addition of a 12-month-long look-back window for tree cutting. Currently, a property owner can clear-cut a property before applying for a permit for a solar project. Misch said this is what happened recently with the solar project at the Willard Gravel Pit, where she said 100,000 board feet of timber was cut.

Misch also said the ordinance revision was also related to the continued preservation of the city’s prime farmland on the floodplain, where large ground-mounted solar arrays are currently prohibited, and allowing solar to be placed in other parts of the city as a result.

Lombard said that the changes to the ordinance that the Public Shade Tree Commission voted to endorse on Jan. 2 were so substantial that the board needs to deliberate on the ordinance in its new form.

“We respectfully request an additional month to get better informed,” said Lombard.

She also affirmed her support for both solar production and tree canopy protection as a private citizen.

One of the people who urged caution was Gerrit Stover, who said private equity is funding solar projects.

“These people do not care about your community,” he said.

John Skibinski was the only person in the public comment period to favor solar development over tree cover.

“If you want furniture, if you want a house, somebody has to cut down some trees,” he said.

In the end, the Committee on Legislative Matters continued its hearing on the ordinance until April 8, in order to give the Planning Board and the Public Shade Tree Commission more time to weigh in on the matter.

Speaking of the commission, Ward 5 City Councilor David Murphy said, “I do think they deserve another crack at it.”

The Planning Board continued its hearing on the matter to March 28, while the commission will be taking it up on Feb. 20.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.

Author: Going Green

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