Such a loaded word, "special." It can be used as a slur or a compliment, a euphemism to mask something uncomfortable or a mark of distinction. Google provides two definitions, one as an adjective, and one as a noun:
better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual (adjective)
a thing, such as an event, product, or broadcast, that is designed or organized for a particular occasion or purpose (noun)
At our recent public hearing, a Planning Board member explained that what is special about the Special Permit process is that "it’s another layer of protection." Now I'm wondering, protection from what?
My question was motivated by an effort to identify the source of tension in a particular set of public hearings about whether an industrial solar panel facility (over 21,000 panels) can be placed in a rural residential neighborhood. The measures by which any request for a Special Permit are evaluated were described by the same Board member as "subjective. They are very hard to figure out."
Subjectivity in Public Policy
Recognizing that subjectivity is part of decision-making does not necessarily mean things are hard to figure out. For instance, the first criteria of the Belchertown, Massachusetts’ Special Permit Granting Authority (SPGA) specifies that the project be:
“(a) … found not to be detrimental to the established or future character of the Town and the neighborhood;”
There is no subjectivity needed in the application of Scarboro Brook LLC (Blue Wave Solar/Cowls Inc) to clearcut some 50 acres of mature forest in order to build a massive, commercial, for profit solar array within feet of dozens of homes, a protected coldwater fishery, and a major drinking water resource.
On the face of it this industrial project will change the character of the area. No deep analysis or arguments are required. This is the most basic common sense. For one thing, no such configuration exists anywhere in the Commonwealth (possibly not in the country — we’ve repeatedly asked for examples where such a project has gone smoothly (to no avail, to date) and have been doing our own research trying to find an exemplar).
By definition, permitting this project changes not only the established character of the neighborhood, but sets in motion a future trajectory with contours that have no precedent. (Unless you count the precedent of two similar-scale but more remote solar arrays who exhibit serious, perhaps intractable, problems: in Orange, “Let’s Not Do Something We’ll Regret Tomorrow”) and Ware/West Brookfield MA (see the [upcoming] White Paper from Belchertown Citizens for Responsible Land Use, and the Letter from Steven P. Garabedian, PhD).
So why hasn’t the Special Permit already been denied? What is the motivation for holding the hand of the developers, meeting after meeting, and coaching them to create a plan that can only ever nominally offset the damage?