Belchertown residents air concerns over solar project at hearing

For the Gazette
Published: 8/15/2018 8:28:43 PM

BELCHERTOWN – At a public hearing Tuesday night, residents shared their opposition to one large-scale solar array on Gulf Road, while plans for a “dual-use” array on private agricultural land raised few concerns.

BlueWave Solar presented plans for an 8-megawatt array on land owned by W.D. Cowls Inc. after Borrego Solar Systems presented plans for a 6.7-megawatt array on a Franklin Street farm. Both projects require special permits from the town.

Over 50 people attended the meeting. Central to their concerns were increased stormwater runoff, loss of property value, an unsightly hillside and forest conservation. Other town members voiced concern over the weathering of the solar panels and eventual leaching of toxic chemicals into the watershed.

“I’m afraid of this becoming a sad story in our town’s history as far as I’m concerned,” Gulf Road resident Jenny Speck-Sherson said during the BlueWave hearing.

The BlueWave project would require clearing about 48 acres of forestland for 21,924 solar panels that will generate 8 megawatts of power. The entire project site covers five parcels of land – 156 acres with three stream crossings and a critical drainage area near Scarborough Brook.

“I am very concerned about the amount of runoff that is running off this property,” said Stephen Garabedian, of Federal Street, who lives downstream from BlueWave’s proposed array. A professional hydrogeologist, Garabedian said his calculations show stormwater runoff would be nearly four times the amount in BlueWave’s plans. “I don’t see capacity in the design to handle potential runoff.”

Plans to manage stormwater include a drainage pond to capture runoff that will be released into Scarborough Brook. The brook feeds into Jabish Brook, which connects to the town’s main water supply.

Other members of the Planning Board and public urged the developers to anticipate the effects of climate change causing increased precipitation in the coming years. Judith Mann, of North Street, called for the board to consider more “holistic zoning” regulations that consider effects to the watershed, drinking water, and wildlife.

“We live in harmony with these lands, and the animals within them,” Mann said.

Town Planner Douglas Albertson said the Planning Board has received many letters from residents concerned about the project. He called removing trees to sequester carbon “counterproductive.”

“This is such a massive project,” Albertson said. “The burden is on you to try to make people feel comfortable that this is not detrimental.”

The Planning Board ordered BlueWave solar associates to pay for an environmental review of the site using a third party assessor chosen by the town, and provide the town with a more comprehensive site plan review. Concerns that the hillside is too steep and prone to erosion would also be addressed in the plans, said Christopher Ryan, a project manager with Meridian Associates who presented BlueWave’s plans.

“We’re not proposing any permanent wetlands crossings on this site,” Ryan said. “We’re maintaining all natural drainage patterns.”

Thomas Reidy, an attorney representing BlueWave Solar, said the town is setting a “dangerous precedent” by requiring the site assessments, thus applying conditions to the project outside the town’s existing solar zoning bylaws. Planning Board Vice Chairman Daniel Beaudette argued the special permit requirement gives the town the ability to impose “heightened scrutiny” on any project. Any project clearing over two acres of forestland requires the special permit, Beaudette said.

To applause, the vice chair pointed out that BlueWave, a Delaware-based company, had not yet registered to do business in Massachusetts. Town Administrator Gary Brougham agreed, saying the oversight concerned him, and would impede the company’s ability to participate in the state’s Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target, or SMART program.

Borrego Solar presented plans for a 18,684-panel, 6.7 megawatt solar array at 400 Franklin St. on land owned by Tom Roberts. With over 1,100 projects nationwide, the Lowell-based company approached Roberts having identified his property as a viable location for their “dual-use” solar array.

“We could have had the opportunity to apply for solar but what really changed our minds was… dual-use,” Roberts said.

With ground-mounted panels raised eight feet above the ground, Roberts could still use the underlying land for agricultural purposes, which would remain taxed as agricultural land under state law. David Albrecht, a principal civil engineer at Borrego Solar, said few trees would be cleared for the array located near Jabish Brook.

“A lot of the site is wetlands,” Albrecht said. “It’s really wide open, I don’t think there’s any trees at all.”

The company plans to pursue a “payment in lieu of tax,” or PILOT, agreement with the town and file a notice of intent within the next week, but they have yet to find an operator for the proposed array.

“Our backs are up against the wall as far as agriculture goes,” Roberts said. “We need all the help we can get.”

Select Board member Gail Gramarossa encouraged townspeople to look at the difference between the two projects, and prioritize those that shared Belchertown’s values of conservation and agriculture.

“I’m very struck by the differences between these two public hearings and these two proposals,” Gramarossa said. “[Borrego] strikes me as the kind of location for which this type of installation seems appropriate. We have a lot of questions about [BlueWave].”

Belchertown already has three operational solar arrays in town, with another 80-acre project by Syncarpha Community Solar on W.D. Cowls Inc.’s land along Gulf Road already approved for a PILOT agreement. The Syncarpha project will be addressed at the upcoming Aug. 20 Special Town Meeting, where residents will vote on whether to reverse the PILOT agreement, and amend some of the town’s solar zoning bylaws.

The Planning Board will continue the public hearing on the BlueWave Solar project on Sept. 25 at 7 in Town Hall. The public hearing for the Borrego project will continue on Aug. 28 at 8 p.m. in Town Hall.

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