Alliance forms in Shutesbury questioning proposed six-megawatt solar array on 30 acres of forestland owned by W.D. Cowls

Last modified: Friday, May 29, 2015

SHUTESBURY — A proposed six-megawatt solar array on 30 acres of wooded land off Pratt Corner Road has prompted several residents to form a group seeking more information about the project and whether the site is the right place for such a development.

Alliance for Appropriate Development spokesman Michael Suter said Friday that residents need to know more about the project. No plans have been filed yet with the Planning Board, which will be asked to grant a special permit for such light industrial use in a rural residential neighborhood .

“We are entirely supportive of solar as long as it is sited in ways that are appropriate,“ Suter said. However, he added, “We should not and cannot destroy the environment in order to save it.”

This comes after Lake Street Development of Chicago recently announced that it wants to use 30 acres of land owned by W.D. Cowls, a section of an 850-acre site known as the Wheelock Tract, for the large-scale project.

Lake Street would have to enter into an interconnection agreement with National Grid to ensure that the electricity created by the solar arrays can supply the existing system. The land is ideal because of its proximity to an existing electrical substation.

The community group plans to meet at 7 p.m. June 17 at the Shutesbury Athletic Club on Wendell Road in advance of any Planning Board or Conservation Commission hearings and Suter said he hopes representatives from Lake Street will attend.

In a letter sent to Lake Street and W.D. Cowls, the group writes “that solar development is a good thing and communities should embrace renewable energy projects. However, we believe that there are good and bad projects and that some projects advance the public good while others prioritize private profit with less public benefit.”

Lake Street distributed information in early May stating that the project fits with Shutesbury being a green community and would mean increased tax revenue of about $48,000 per year. The developer also contends that this is the best site for the project because of distances from property owners and residences, and there are also few wetlands or vernal pools and it would have a minimal impact on wildlife.

Michel J. “Mickey” Marcus, president and founder of New England Environmental in Amherst, is handling the environmental and engineering consulting.

Marcus said the project would be 1,500 feet from the road and would not compromise wetlands. “The goal with this project and any other solar project is to avoid wetlands,” he added.

Marcus expects that about 20 acres will need to be cleared, which he described as light woods that is a part of the property that was once used as a clearing area for logging operations.

Suter said cutting down trees to make way is one of the big worries. “It’s pristine, healthy forest and we’re looking for answers as to why they want to cut down 30 acres,” said Suter, arguing this could be a violation of Shutesbury zoning and sets a precedent for removing forestland.

W.D. Cowls President Cinda Jones said she got the letter from the Shutesbury group.

“It was astonishing to receive a letter from recreational users of Cowls land that calls to my attention Shutesbury’s goal of preserving large tracts of forestland and explaining the environmental benefits of trees,” Jones said.

Jones said her company has preserved thousands of acres of forestland and will continue to do so, and that the solar project is a way to ensure that a community with no commercial rooftops and little open space for solar panels can be a green community.

“We’ve worked for years with government leaders of Shutesbury to make this solar project happen to achieve green community goals,” Jones said. “It’s important and so exciting to be a part of.”

Suter said residents are also concerned about whether chemical exfoliants may be used at the base of the panels, Lake Street has indicated no pesticides need to be used.

Changes in water dynamics by removing trees and adding a gravel base below the solar panels could have an impact on drinking water wells and aquifers that feed the Atkins Reservoir, Suter said.

Marcus said stormwater erosion control is always a high priority for these projects and he is confident that there will be plenty of opportunities at public meetings to address these concerns.

In 2011, Citizens Energy Corp. of Boston developed a plan for a 35-acre solar array that would have produced six megawatts, also on land owned by W.D. Cowls on Pratt Corner Road. That project never moved forward.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at


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