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Solar project proposed for North Amherst site owned by W.D. Cowls

A 20-acre site near Cherry Hill Golf Course, part of a large area that includes agricultural fields, woods and a former Christmas tree farm, could be home to a 3-megawatt solar energy development next year.

Known as the Amherst Pulpit Hill project, W.D. Cowls Inc. is leasing the land to Altru Energy LLC of Conshohocken, Pa.

The proposal will be formally presented at a meeting to be held at the community room at Pulpit Hill Cohousing Nov. 3 at 10 a.m.

Michael “Mickey” Marcus, senior scientist and principal at New England Environmental, the consultants hired to evaluate the suitability of the site, said the meeting is designed to get feedback from neighbors.

“This is the starting point to throw darts at the project and see what issues there are,” Marcus said.

New England Environmental will be responsible for the design that will be used in the permitting process, wetland delineations and checking for rare species.

As part of the nearly 200 acres that surround the site, Marcus said there are both informal walking trails on old logging roads and a portion of the Robert Frost Trail. “We’re trying to make sure whatever layout accommodates the trail system,” Marcus said.

Julie Marcus, marketing director for a New England Environmental, said the project will take any neighborhood concerns into account.

Most of the land is already cleared, she said, recreational uses, including the popular walking trails, will be maintained and there will be as little disruption as possible for neighbors during the three-month period in which the project would be built, she said.

Andrew Bohne, a landscape architect for New England Environmental, said evergreens will shield the project from the golf course, while cars traveling on Route 63 may get glimpses of the solar arrays.

Cinda Jones, president of W.D. Cowls, said she sees the project as progress for renewable energy in Amherst and an appropriate use for land.

“This is an exciting opportunity for Cowls,” Jones said. “We’re well known for working with towns to achieve mutual goals like affordable housing, land conservation and alternative energy.”

Jones said she has a similar commitment in Shutesbury where she has proposed a 6-megawatt project on 35 acres, though that has not advanced.

The project size in North Amherst is limited by the capacity of a Western Massachusetts Electric Co. substation on Sunderland Road.

The proposal comes in advance of fall Town Meeting, when voters will be asked to authorize Town Manager John Musante to enter into contracts in which the town of Amherst would be the host customer for this and other potential solar projects. The warrant article also would give Musante power to sign purchase agreements and to enter into agreements with Western Massachusetts Electric for a so-called net metering program that would allow the town to generate its own electricity and offset usage.

By being a host community, Amherst would receive about $18,000 annually from the project. There would also be additional taxes collected on the equipment and, if the town participates in the net metering program, savings on electricity, Mickey Marcus said.

Musante said the project will benefit the community by allowing him to look into other sites where town could develop renewable energy, in addition to plans for the old landfill on Belchertown Road.

“I think it’s best to have that flexibility in this rapidly evolving marketplace,” Musante said.

Mickey Marcus said he has consulted on projects in other towns, including ones already built in Northfield and Pittsfield and ones where permitting is complete in Hadley and Lancaster.

He said there is no guarantee that this project will move forward observing that solar developers often secure appropriate sites for development.

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