Shutesbury OKs permit for controversial solar project

  • Jeffrey Lacy, who is a member of the Shutesbury Planning Board, speaks during a meeting of the board Tuesday at Town Hall where they voted to approve a special permit requested by Lake Street Development to build a 30-acre solar installment of Pratt Corner Road. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • A group of people concerned that the proposed site for a solar energy project may disturb Native American burial grounds applaud Tuesday after comments by Geoffrey Pray Whittum, of Suffield, Ct., during a meeting of the Shutesbury Planning Board at Town Hall. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Geoffrey Pray Whittum, of Suffield, Ct., speaks in support of those who are concerned about Native American burial grounds that some believe exist at a site where a 30-acre solar installment is planned on Pratt Corner Road, during a Shutesbury Planning Board meeting, Tuesday. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Miriam DeFant, left, speaks to the Shutesbury Planning Board, Tuesday at Town Hall. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Michael Pill, of Shutesbury, who is an attorney for Lake Street Development, speaks Tuesday during a meeting of the Planning Board at Shutesbury Town Hall. The board voted for the special permit requested by the developer to build a 30-acre solar installment of Pratt Corner Road. JERREY ROBERTS—

Published: 6/8/2016 12:56:40 AM

SHUTESBURY — Tensions flared again Tuesday night as the Planning Board approved a special permit for a 30-acre solar installation. After nearly a year of debate, the permit is a compromise between the developer and residents concerned about a possible Native American burial ground.

Some 30 people attended the two-hour meeting at Town Hall, with 10 donning Native American regalia in protest. Nearly a dozen residents raised concerns that Chicago-based developer Lake Street Development proposes to build on a Native American burial ground.

Soft-spoken Planning Board Chairman Deacon Bonnar was forced to bang his gavel on the table to put an end to interjections by residents as board members deliberated among themselves following public comment. The board believes it hammered out a compromise that would satisfy residents, appease the developer and stay within the town’s legal jurisdiction.

“It moves us further than we were last time,” said Planning Board member Jeffrey Lacy. “It may not be as far as some would like to go, but it gets done what the Planning Board was hoping to accomplish.”

The special permit and the conditions placed on it, were drafted by Lacy and approved unanimously by the board with one amendment regarding an escrow fund for the project.

Though those advocating for the inclusion of a Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, in case the site does contain a Native American burial ground, were not completely satisfied by the conditions, they were able to come to an agreement with the developer.

The decision comes after nearly a year of public hearings and deliberation on the project that began July 27, 2015.

Archaeologist’s survey

Permit conditions will require the developer to hire an archaeologist to survey the land on Pratt Corner Road before the company moves forward with plans to build a 6-megawatt solar installation.

If the survey turns up evidence of a burial ground or other traditional cultural property, the developer will be prohibited from building within 15 feet of the identified site.

“It’s a survey with a consequence,” Lacy explained.

Michael Pill, the attorney representing Lake Street Development and long-time Shutesbury resident, said although he and his client do not like the conditions, they would work with them to get the project underway.

“We don’t like it, but we’ll live with it,” said Pill. “This goes so far beyond what the law requires … but to be fair-minded for the town, we’ll live with it.”

According to the permit, the survey must be conducted by someone who meets or exceeds the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s qualifications for an archaeologist and the survey must meet that office’s standards for the identification and evaluation of historic properties.

The Planning Board reserves the right to use an independent third-party consultant that meets the same standards as the developer’s surveyor to advise it on the survey results. The outside consultant may accompany the applicant’s archaeologist during the survey. Lacy said he plans to accompany the surveyors.

Sarah Kohler, the New Salem resident who first suggested the possibility of a burial ground on the site at the final public hearing in early March, said she hopes the board will hold the developer accountable after the survey is completed.

“I guess we’ll see how the board holds to their stated intent,” said Kohler, barefoot in the gravel of the parking lot after the meeting, looking upward as the sky turned from dusk to dark.

“For anything to grow, you have to plant a seed, right?” Kohler asked. “I strongly believe this is a significant and important site and I look forward to seeing details surface after the survey.”

Kohler was joined at the meeting by her nephew, Alejo Zacarias, 28, of New Salem.

Zacarias, who identifies himself as a member of the Purepecha tribe, said cultural connections across the region stretch further than some think, and that mobilizes him to “keep challenging” decisions that could disrupt cultural sites, even when they are not in the town where he lives.

Faced deadline

The Planning Board was under pressure to make a decision Tuesday night. After a heated May 23 meeting, the board and developer agreed to extend the town’s deadline beyond a 90-day period previously set to end June 5. The board promised to decide the permit’s conditions Tuesday and submit the permit to the town clerk no later than Monday.

If a decision was not reached by that date, the permit would have automatically been granted.

During the hearings, residents expressed concern about the environmental impact of the project. According to Bonnar, the plan was reconfigured to satisfy residents and protect the environment.

The revised design now consists of two sections of paneling to accommodate sloping land in the center of the project, and plans for an access road were adjusted to accommodate wetlands on the property, he said in May. 

The size of the project, 20 acres of solar panels and a 10-acre clearing to allow for light to shine through, remains unchanged.

Board vacancy

There will be a vacancy on the Planning Board on July 1 when Jon Thompson’s term expires. The vacancy was not filled in the town election May 7, so the Select Board and Planning Board will hold a joint meeting Aug. 1 to appoint a successor to Thompson.

Miriam DeFant, a resident serving as a spokeswoman for those concerned about the Native American burial ground, stated her interest in filling the position, adding that she would abstain from weighing in on business involving the Lake Street Development solar project.

“I would hope my advocacy and right to protest my government wouldn’t be a way to excuse me from serving in town government,” DeFant said.

Pill also expressed an interest in filling the vacancy during the meeting, but later said he had changed his mind, saying his representation of Lake Street Development would pose a conflict of interest.

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