HARVARD -- Solar farm proponent Worth Robbins came to selectmen last week with a request to create a special permit category for the nascent project his group has been working on for some time. It's been in limbo, in part because it doesn't fit existing permit parameters. "We should have asked for this ... a year ago," he said.
Specifically, the category would be for ground-mounted, community-shared solar arrays.
When his group applied to participate in the "Solarize Massachusetts" program, 95 townspeople signed up, he said. But not all of them qualified, either because their properties were not located in suitable solar areas or because the roof on which they wanted to install a solar array wasn't strong enough to support it.
So the group opted for a communal approach to include those folks. "We went for a solar garden" that people could tie into, Robbins said. When they asked the state to consider this alternative, the first response was no, he said, but on second thought it was yes.
The upshot is that the state "solarize" program would now consider grants for community solar farms, same as for individual installations. Given a green light to solicit participants, the group found a place to put an array, on private, residential property. But the building permit was denied, Robbins said.
With 40 potential participants lined up, the group next eyed a spot in the commercial district. The result was the same. The permit application was denied.
Cost, too, became an issue. "Town Meeting gave us the okay to put two parcels into the 'green community' overlay district," Robbins continued. "But we miscalculated what the fee would be."
Part of the problem, he said, was that the permit application was for individual arrays, with percentage-based fees that could cost out to $20,000 in this instance.
"Could you think about creating a category on the permit schedule to allow for shared solar at a reasonable fee?" Robbins asked the board, citing inspections as a cost criterion.
There's time enough now to re-do the process. When Robbins last came to the board, the clock was ticking on grant application deadlines, since extended to February. By then, a "concrete plan" could hopefully be in place so the project could move forward, he said.
"We need to examine how much it truly costs" to inspect a farm-style solar installation, Selectman Tim Clark said, adding that it might be prudent to revisit "how we set our fees," compared to other communities.
"Are you suggesting that we look at all our fees or just solar?" Selectman Marie Sobalvarro asked. If so, that could call into question those who already paid permit fees based on a percentage of the cost of individual solar installations, as is the set-up now.
Bill Johnson said the issue was worth exploring, but not that night. "I think I get the point," he said. "Let's discuss this another time."
To simplify the issue, Robbins said the focus should be on overlay district parameters for ground-mounted solar arrays. "We could set a fee schedule for only that," he said.
"To be fair" to everyone, all installation services tied to permit fees should be evaluated, Selectman Ron Ricci said.
Chairman Lucy Wallace asked for volunteers to look into the matter. Clark and Sobalvarro agreed to do so.