Columnist Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy: The challenges and risks of siting solar

  • NextEra Energy Resources solar panels in Alabama. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 9/21/2018 8:37:16 AM

The last 10 years have seen an unprecedented increase in the number of solar farms throughout the country, including here in Massachusetts encouraged by the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program that provides solar incentives in our state.

Several large-scale solar projects have been proposed or built in western Massachusetts, including in Belchertown, which has been presented with the possibility of two projects sited on woodland property owned by W. D. Cowls, Inc. The first, off Gulf Road, proposed by Blue Wave Solar, would clear cut 40 acres of forest on the east side of the road. The project would necessitate several stream crossings, culverts, and forest clearcutting. The second, off North Street, proposed by Syncarpha Capital LLC, would involve clearcutting 80 acres of woodlands on a steep site and would be visible from across the valley, but specific details of that project are not yet available since an application for a special permit for that project has yet to be submitted, and Cowls has posted no trespassing signs and surveillance cameras on the circumference of the properties, complicating site research. 

These projects were proposed before many towns had the opportunity to create comprehensive zoning rules governing their siting. Solar arrays have historically been sited on rooftops, fallow farm land, brownfields, and other open, flat areas, but the financial incentives from leases make other sites attractive as well. Belchertown’s zoning laws require special permits for PV arrays with land clearing of two acres or more or arrays generating three megawatts or more. Some Belchertown residents support these projects given the tax benefits to the town, although the Blue Wave project would comprise only about .2 percent of the town’s annual budget. Others are concerned that Belchertown may engage in such projects before developing informed principles regarding appropriate site qualifications.

On Sept. 25, the Belchertown Planning Board will discuss with representatives of Blue Wave their application for a special permit for the proposed solar array on Cowls’ Gulf Road property. Two categories of issues will need to be weighed: First, does the project present potential risks to water, wildlife and the environment? And second, does it violate zoning bylaws that protect the financial investments of homeowners and the character of the town?

The most significant potential public health and safety risks with these two projects arise from their siting — clear cutting on a hillside near wetlands or an aquifer. Site suitability was addressed, ironically, by Syncarpha Solar LLC Vice President Keith Akers, who said in a July 20, 2018 article, “We look for sites that are relatively flat, sites that had minimal to no forestation on them, and sites that did not have any wetlands or flood plain concerns.” The sites proposed here violate these three principles: They are steep, forested and adjacent to an aquifer, all of which can create flood and water quality problems.

According to hydrologist Dr. Steve Garabedian, referring to the Gulf Road site, “The site is inappropriate for this size of solar development, particularly for an area that is a designated flood zone … and a contributing area for a drinking water aquifer.”  The steep hill creates “the likelihood for severe storm-water runoff and erosion from the site after development,” which could lead to contamination of Scarborough Brook, a Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife Service listed cold water fishery that feeds Daigle Well, a primary water source for the area. 

Viewsheds are another problematic issue. The developers plan to cut trees around the array site to provide as much sun exposure as possible, so abutters would have no buffer between their properties and the solar plants. Additionally, the steep hillsides of these properties serve to increase their visibility.

But the most sensitive issues involve quality of life. Belchertown’s zoning bylaws for special permits state that they can only be granted for projects that “are found not to be detrimental to the established or future character of the Town and the neighborhood; [and] Will not nullify or substantially derogate from the intent or purpose of the zoning district in which they are located.”  

Many residents purchased their properties with the expectation that the town’s historical preservation of its forested environment would continue. Commercial solar can reduce property values in a neighborhood where woodland is valued. The largest single investment most people make is in their home. Would those who support these solar projects feel the same if it were their financial investment at risk? 

This all leads back to Syncarpha’s initial principle regarding where to site solar farms — on flat, non-forested land far from a water source. Towns across the state should take a breath and give careful thought to developing long-term plans for siting solar farms.

Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy, former professor and chair of the Department of Writing at Ithaca College, currently teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is the author of three books, including “The Mind’s Eye: Image and Memory in Writing About Trauma” and “Sacred Justice: the Voices and Legacy of the Armenian Operation Nemesis.” 

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