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Hatfield zoning board to hear appeal of solar project

Mary Duseau of Bridge Street and a group of fellow abutters filed an appeal with the board on the grounds that the installation, which calls for approximately 8,276 solar panels, is not permitted in a rural residential zone under the Hatfield zoning bylaws. They also claim the proposal does not sufficiently address health and safety issues.

Under state law, 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 health, safety or welfare.

In their appeal, abutters claim that health and safety issues have not been sufficiently addressed and that the full costs of the project have not been disclosed.

The public hearing will take place Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in the library of Smith Academy at 34 School St.

Attorney Michael Pill of Northampton is representing the abutters.

“This is a manufacturing facility, manufacturing electricity, and they want to plop it down in the middle of a residential zone,” Pill said on Friday, saying broken solar panels could contaminate soil and the installation’s power inverters could cause noise pollution. The proposed installation would produce as much as 2.4 megawatts of electricity.

The controversy began when residents were notified that Citizens Enterprises Corp. of Boston, headed by Joseph P. Kennedy II, planned to build a solar installation on land owned by Szawlowski Realty Inc.

In September, the company presented its plans for the solar installation to the Planning Board. The board tabled the proposal, and Citizens Enterprises withdrew its plans, opting instead to secure a building permit through the Hatfield building inspector.

Residents objected to the move, as they saw it as a way to circumvent the Planning Board’s public process.

In late October, one week after the proposal was filed, Building Inspector Stanley Sadowski granted a building permit to Hatfield Solar LLC, a development company owned by Citizens Enterprises.

“This is the same plan that was submitted to the Planning Board,” Brian O’Connor, the company’s vice president for public affairs, said on Friday, maintaining that the process has been completely transparent and aboveboard.

“We have followed all of the regulations that have been set up by the town for issuing a building permit,” O’Connor said. “We are very careful in all of our filings and we stand by all of the information provided.”

Pill, however, maintains that the building permit fee of $8,715.80 was improperly calculated, as it was based only on the $1.7 million cost of the solar panels. He said that this is a “low-ball figure” that does not represent the total cost of the project, which he claims is more likely to be $11 million to $12 million. His estimate is based on an $8 million 1.7-megawatt photovoltaic project off Shoemaker Lane in Agawam in which Citizens Energy is also involved.

“At this point in time, we do not know what the entire cost of the project will be. It is correct that the $1.7 million is the cost of the solar panels, but that is what the town asked for,” O’Connor said.

The 30-page appeal, filed on Nov. 16, claims the underestimated construction costs would cause the town to “lose millions of dollars in tax revenue” over the estimated 20- to 25-year life of the project.

“At the very least, the building permit should be revoked and sent back to the building inspector, not to be reissued until they know what the construction costs are so they have a more accurate figure for the tax assessor,” Pill said.

Town Administrator Paul Boudreau said the appeal process is “moving along as it should and we just have to wait and see what the ZBA has to say.”

Contacted on Friday morning, Sadowski said he was too busy to comment on the issue. Attempts to contact him on Monday were unsuccessful.

According to O’Connor, a representative of Citizens Enterprises will be at the hearing.

“There are always questions and we do our best to answer them,” O’Connor said. “I know in some agricultural areas people are concerned about the loss of farmland. But this is a clean energy installation that can easily be returned to agricultural land in 20 years, unlike pavement and permanent construction.”

He said no toxic materials are used in the solar panels.

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