Solar ordinance increases setback hundreds of feet

Solar ordinance increases setback hundreds of feet

Meant to halt 'gold rush' for solar fields

GLOCESTER – Utility-sized solar arrays in Glocester will need a front yard setback longer than a football field, with shorter 300-foot side and rear setbacks after the Town Council approved amendments to the zoning ordinance.

During a Town Council meeting last Thursday, Nov. 1, the council unanimously approved several amendments recommended by Town Planner Karen Scott to the Solar Energy Systems Zoning Ordinance in the Glocester Code of Ordinance.

Utility-scale solar energy systems, or arrays covering more than 200,000 square feet, will need a front setback of 500 square feet, and side and rear setbacks of 300 feet.

Focusing on setbacks, the council adjusted the original recommendation of a 400-foot front, rear and side setback for medium-scale and large-scale ground-mounted energy systems to 300 feet.

Medium-scale arrays are larger than 1,750 square feet, but not larger than 40,000 square feet, and large-scale arrays are between 40,000 and 200,000 square feet. Setbacks for medium- and large-scale arrays were previously set to 200 feet.

Council member Walter M. O. Steere III said the purpose of the changes is to stop the “gold rush”-like effect of companies buying farmland in Glocester to set up solar fields.

“At the end of the day, we need to balance property rights and keeping the rural character of the town,” Steere said.

The council’s decision was met with mixed reviews, with some residents praising the ordinance for preserving the town’s rural character, ad others admonishing the restrictive changes.

Marjorie Swift, a Glocester resident, said the setbacks would make solar systems unfeasible for Glocester residents. She and her husband, Stacey, plan to put a solar array on their land on Hartford Pike.

“I don’t think one size necessarily fits all. I don’t think we should hurry any of these approvals. Be conservative about this and take it easy,” Stacey said.

Planning Board Chairman George Charette, who spoke as both a resident and public official, said the push to move “solar farms” onto farmland is dangerous.

“They want you to allow them to use those (farming) fields. If you lose the farm industry, what are you going to eat?” Charette asked.

“It’s been ruled they’re not farms, it’s manufacturing,” he added.

Charette said the prior ordinance was weak, and deciding each development on a case-by-case basis using the comprehensive plan left the rules open to interpretation.

“I’ve said for the past 20 years, you better start making changes, because it’s going to bite you. We’re there,” Charette said.

Council member Patricia Henry said taxpayers of Glocester should decide what is best for the town by putting restrictions on solar.

“It’s important that we do not lose sight of our town’s character, if that means a few big projects are killed. We’re not going to please everybody,” Henry said.

No changes were made to zoning districts for small, medium and large solar arrays. Only small-scale arrays are allowed in the village district, while medium-scale systems are permitted in all other zoning districts. Large-scale solar projects are allowed by special use permit only.

In addition to the setback adjustments, the council approved several other amendments to the ordinance:

• Remove restriction of solar arrays on prime agricultural soil, or soil of statewide importance by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Natural Resource Conservation Service;

• Allow utility arrays in A-3 and A-4 agriculture residential zoning by special use permit;

• Allow utility arrays adjacent to but not in R-2 zoning;

• Require screening be maintained by owner for the life of system;

• And increase the maximum amount of clearing permitted of forested property to 30 percent from 20 percent.