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Hatfield ZBA delays decision on large-scale solar project off Chestnut Street

After spending the better part of an hour trying to decipher state and local bylaws governing such large solar projects, the board agreed that it needed more time to research the issue before it could make such an important decision for the town.

Several neighbors are appealing the issuance of a building permit in October to Hatfield Solar LLC, a development company owned by Citizens Enterprises. The company wants to erect 8,276 solar panels that would generate 2.4 megawatts of power on 35 acres of land at 45 Chestnut St.

The ZBA scheduled another meeting for Monday, Feb. 11, at 6:30 p.m. at the Smith Academy Library, though members said several times they will take as much time as they need before casting a vote. Under the terms of the neighbors’ appeal, the board must render a decision by Feb. 25, though both parties agreed to extend that deadline if necessary.

“I personally am not going to be put under the gun” to make a decision, member Francis Spellacy said.

The board did, however, rule that several other complaints in the neighbors’ appeal did not have merit. Among those were that its chairman, Michael F. Paszek, had a conflict of interest because his home sold at foreclosure auction to Christopher Smith, a member of the town’s Energy Committee and an advocate of the project.

“How can Mr. Paszek as chair of the Hatfield Zoning Board possibly ignore the solar project advocate who now owns the Paszek family home?” wrote Michael Pill, an attorney representing the neighbors.

The board discussed the situation last month and agreed there was not a conflict, member Bryan Nicholas said. He said linking Smith to the deliberations presumes the board would take information he provides without corroboration.

“I’m not sure that’s the case,” Nicholas said.

Paszek said Thursday he has spoken on two occasions to the state Ethics Commission, which said he can deliberate on the matter as long as he doesn’t have a monetary stake with any party involved.

“I received nothing from the transaction and that’s the way it stands,” Paszek said.

Board members also felt they were not in a position to determine whether Citizens Enterprises misrepresented the project’s price tag. The company gave the figure of $1.7 million, which Pill contends is too low by several million dollars. Nicholas said the ZBA does not set the building permit fees.

And in a new development, Pill filed an Open Meeting Law complaint against the ZBA for the way it handed his bias complaint at a public hearing Jan. 9.

“I believe that the Zoning Board members acted intentionally in deliberating and making a decision concerning my allegation of bias, because they wanted to avoid any public discussion of the facts,” he wrote in the complaint.

Pill asks the attorney general’s office to make public all communications between ZBA members concerning the allegation of bias, and that the issue be discussed and decided in a posted ZBA public meeting.

Board members agreed to address the complaint at the Feb. 11 meeting.

Most of the discussion Thursday before about 40 residents centered around governance of solar installations.

Building Inspector Stanley Sadowski issued the building permit based on state law, which states that no zoning ordinance or bylaw can prohibit or unreasonably regulate the installation of solar energy systems or the building of structures that facilitate the collection of solar energy unless it is to protect the public’s health, safety or welfare.

The ZBA struggled to figure out whether a solar installation project as large as this one falls under the town’s bylaws or state law, as Sadowski thought.

At a public hearing earlier this month, Pill argued that town bylaw prevents a large-scale solar installation in a residential area because it is considered an energy-manufacturing plant that belongs in an industrial zoning district.

Attorney Diane Tillotson of the Boston firm Hemenway & Barnes, who represents Hatfield Solar LLC and Citizens Enterprises Corp., disagreed at that hearing. She argued the project is energy-generating, not manufacturing, and that the bylaw does not apply.

While most of the focus thus far has been on this section of town bylaw, Nicholas brought up another section that spells out public and private utilities. The board said it needed more time to figure out if this section applies to the project.

Neighbors were not allowed to speak at the meeting. After the meeting, several people said they aren’t against solar projects in general but that they should not be built in the middle of a residential area.

“It’s the right thing to do, but in the wrong place,” said Stanley Pitchko of Prospect Street, arguing there are many other areas in town where such a development would be a good fit.

Mike Stryszko agreed, saying he doesn’t want to see trees removed and the land bulldozed to make way for the project.

“Stick the whole thing in an industrial area, I have no problem with that,” he said.

Pitchko argued that even though state law doesn’t prohibit large-scale solar projects in communities, that doesn’t mean Hatfield can’t regulate through its bylaws where such developments can go. He said there are 19 direct abutters and 55 abutters within 300 feet of the project who would all be affected should it move ahead.

The welfare of the town's citizens would certainly be affected! If a large installation were to be allowed within a residential neighborhood, what happens to the property values of these homes? The resale value pretty much goes down to $0, doesn't it?

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