Editorial: Push and pull of a solar project

  • A group of people concerned that a proposed solar energy project may be located on Native American burial grounds review a special permit issued by the planning board during a meeting Monday at Shutesbury Town Hall.

Published: 7/19/2016 5:51:10 PM

Tapping the sun’s energy is a good idea we should continue to embrace. Yet solar installations can have downsides, as projects in local communities have found.

Though Earth-friendly because they do not release carbon, solar farms (as opposed to rooftop installations) require that large pieces of equipment be erected on open spaces. That can stir neighborhood opposition.

In Amherst, after years of study and debate, a solar project was cancelled this summer due to the threat it posed to the habitat of the endangered grasshopper sparrow.

In Shutesbury, a plan to create a 6-megawatt solar project on a 30-acre tract on Pratt Corner Road owned by W.D. Cowls Inc. is embroiled in controversy. The project has been wending its way through local boards for approval. Some residents have expressed concerns the project will cause erosion and deforestation affecting birds in the area. To address such worries, the Planning Board approved a reconfigured plan to take into account the slope of the land and to ease drainage concerns. Plans for an access road were adjusted to accommodate wetlands.

But recently, just as the approval process was reaching its conclusion, a photographer from New Salem who says she takes pictures of stone and earthworks around New England surfaced with a new objection. She said she walked the property and saw stones, individual and stacked, that she thinks indicate the area was used as a burial ground by Native Americans.

The Planning Board took her report under consideration and asked the solar farm developer, Lake Street Development of Chicago, to hire an expert to examine the area. The board also hired one of its own, Eric Johnson, director of archaeological services at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. They, along with Planning Board member Jeffrey Lacey, inspected the land in June, though they declined to allow a representative of those objecting to accompany them. That decision did not sit well with those opposed.

Michael Pill, the attorney for Lake Street Development, says that in his legal career he has never seen a third party such as this be allowed onto a proposed development site. The town’s counsel, Donna Nicol, told Planning Board members they might be overstepping their boundaries if they granted access to it.

Instead, they agreed to pay Doug Harris, a preservationist for ceremonial landscapes for the Narragansett Indian Tribe, a fee of $500 to look over the photographs and other evidence gathered and offer his opinion.

While that may seem a reasonable compromise, we don’t think it is fair to expect Harris to make an assessment based on photos and data presented to him by the inspecting party. Though we understand why the landowner does not want him to walk the land unaccompanied, it would have generated goodwill to let him join the group and see the area for himself.

In the meantime, tensions between Cowls and project opponents have escalated to the point where the logging company issued a trespass order to keep people off land that it has allowed the public to use for years. In an email, Cowls President Cinda Jones wrote, “When public use of our forestland impedes our family business potential, public access has to cease.”

Cowls has been a good citizen in Shutesbury, where it owns and manages 3,000 acres of timberland. In 2011, it put about 800 acres under a conservation restriction and Jones says it intends to protect 2,000 more acres in the coming year, ensuring permanent public access. She says the land designated for the solar project represents 1 percent of the company’s property and the project will be good both for her company and for the town, generating “green” electricity and tax revenue.

On the other hand, it is important to make sure that environmental and historic concerns, including those related to the first Americans, are not given short shrift. It is too bad this proposal has generated animosity. The results of the archaeological report will be public soon. We hope its findings settle the issue. Both sides seem to have elements of the public interest at heart.


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