Review sought of 41-acre solar/battery project on Amherst’s eastern edge

Amherst Town Hall.

Amherst Town Hall. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 06-11-2024 12:09 PM

AMHERST — A controversial large-scale solar and battery development planned for a portion of a mostly wooded 102-acre site on the eastern edge of town is continuing to make its way through municipal permitting, with a private consultant to review aspects of the project expected to be hired soon on behalf of the town’s Planning Department.

The proposal from PureSky Energy, formerly Amp Energy, is for a 9.35 megawatt ground-mounted solar array spanning 41 acres of the site, with accompanying battery storage. The land is situated between 187 and 201 Shutesbury Road, near where the town lines of Amherst, Pelham and Shutesbury converge, and is owned by W.D. Cowls Inc.

At the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting on June 6, Planning Director Christine Brestrup said a request for services and request for quote is being advertised for a peer reviewer, a company that will look closely at all materials submitted to the town panel. The work will also include examining the site design and overall layout, construction phases, including tree removal plans and impacts to wetlands, review of the notice of intent, and any potential contamination, including to residential wells and surface streams, Brestrup said.

This will supplement a peer review that is already underway by WSP environmental consultants from Glastonbury, Connecticut. WSP is reviewing the glare from the panels and battery storage system.

Last month, the Conservation Commission issued an Order of Resource Area Delineation, or ORAD, and Wetlands Administrator Erin Jacque issued a report at the end of May that the developer will respond to.

The Zoning Board of Appeals hearing will continue July 25 at 6 p.m.

Tom Reidy, an attorney with Bacon Wilson PC in Amherst, said he doesn’t expect substantive discussion on the project until the peer reviews are underway and a response is provided to the wetlands administrator’s memo.

Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Steve Judge said residents and other public commenters who have provided numerous responses about the possible development should know that no decision is imminent.

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“This is going to be a long process — we’re going to have lots of meetings, several more meetings for sure, on this topic,” Judge said.

The developer’s filing in 2023 indicates that the project will help meet the state’s climate goals and need for renewable energy. A similar proposal for the land was withdrawn in November 2021.

Two letters have come this spring from the Pelham Planning Board, sent by Chairwoman Judith Eiseman, with one citing an Audubon/Harvard Forest study that the state’s 2050 decarbonization goals can be met by siting solar closer to where it is actually needed, rather than in the middle of the woods.

“This project will neither benefit Amherst’s nor the commonwealth’s well-being and may in fact cause irreversible damage to soils, water, and the area’s capacity to sequester carbon while damaging wildlife corridors and habitat in Amherst, Pelham and Shutesbury,” the letter reads. “Too often, environmental and financial costs are inadequately evaluated in the current rush to get solar built.”

Most of those offering oral comments have spoken against the project.

Phil Rich of Shutesbury Road, who also wrote a letter, told the Zoning Board of Appeals that clear-cutting to accommodate the project will have a direct impact on his property, as an immediate abutter, leading to excess water running off into his home and basement. Rich said there are also worries about damage to the watershed.

Stacey McCullough of North Valley Road in Pelham, who serves on that town’s Planning Board, said the installation may compromise biodiversity and the embedded carbon dioxide benefits from the woods.

Any reuse of residential-zoned land for an industrial grade power plant should have a high bar for municipal approval, said Jack Hirsch of Flat Hills Road.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.