Sunday, April 15, 2012

Board Rejects Solar Farm

Months of meetings filled with questions about the composition of solar panels, potential noise from solar-power inverters, and even the preservation of an old maple tree infested with ants ended last week with the Holliston Planning Board’s rejection of a proposed commercial solar farm in a hay field abutting a neighborhood.

Cambridge-based Renewable Energy Massachusetts and Syncarpha Solar LLC of New York have proposed building a 7-acre photovoltaic solar array, with 7,400 16-foot-long solar panels positioned in south-facing rows 10 feet off the ground to convert the sun’s rays into electricity. The project on the Bullard Memorial Farm property would generate 2 megawatt hours of electricity annually, enough juice to power 300 homes, while providing the nonprofit farm with income for decades, the developers said.

However, neighbors like Marti Boyles, whose home is next to the 150-acre farm on Bullard Street, opposed the project as too industrial for such a residential setting.

“I am a proponent of solar - I have solar power on my house - but I do not agree with a project of this size and magnitude in a residential area. This is something that belongs in an industrial area,’’ said Boyles, who was among the 50 residents who packed Thursday night’s Planning Board meeting.

When the five-member panel voted unanimously at the end of a three-hour meeting to have the town counsel draft a denial, Boyles cheered. The town’s lawyer, Mark Bobrowski, said the board would formally vote on the project and issue its report at its April 2 meeting.

“This is what I was hoping for,’’ Boyles said. “We worked very hard with both the Planning Board and the Conservation Commission on this. I feel that they did a fair and equitable job, and listened to the concerns and requests of both sides. They weighed in favor of the people of Holliston.’’

But project consultant Larry Beals, who spent much of the meeting explaining changes made to plans in response to earlier questions from the town and residents, said the solar farm is not yet dead.

“It’s not over yet. We still have to read their decision,’’ he said. “I would have liked a better outcome.’’

Charles Thurlow, president of the Bullard Memorial Farm Association, said he will discuss the impending denial with Syncarpha and Renewable Energy before deciding what to do next.

Earlier in the evening, Thurlow explained how the registered charity that oversees the 350-year-old homestead chose the solar field over other proposals - including a beekeeping operation and an organic farm - that were deemed by its board to be more detrimental to the grounds and less financially promising. Under a 30-year lease, Syncarpha would pay Bullard Farm $20,000 to $30,000 a year, and would return the land to its original state at the end of the lease.

Thurlow also submitted a letter to the Planning Board saying residents would be wrong to assume the hay field would remain open space if the solar project were to be rejected.

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“That option is not realistic,’’ Thurlow said in the letter. “If this solar project is not approved, we will be forced to consider other development options, many of which would be more invasive or disruptive to the hay field. In the past we have considered selling all or part of the site for house lots, but chose not to do so. We hope not to do so at this time, and the solar rental income, which escalates yearly, avoids this outcome.’’

Although Bullard Memorial Farm is in a part of Holliston that is zoned for agricultural and residential uses, the power-generating facility has been proposed under a decades-old state law barring communities from unreasonably regulating or prohibiting solar projects.

Neighbors contend the law was written at a time when large-scale solar farms did not exist, and the state has since urged communities to adopt zoning bylaws regulating where solar facilities larger than 250 kilowatts - one-eighth the size of the Bullard Farm proposal - can be built.

Holliston has adopted no such zoning bylaw, leaving the question up to the Planning Board to decide. The board’s meetings have become so crowded with neighbors opposed to building the solar farm that Thursday’s session was shifted to a larger room at the town’s Senior Center.

Sandra O’Neil grew up in Holliston, and never expected to be pitted against a solar power project when she and her husband, Tim, moved back to her hometown to raise their son and daughter. She has a doctorate in environmental sociology and believes solar power is needed, O’Neil said, but not in the form of an industrial power-generating facility in the midst of a bucolic neighborhood on a historically registered farm.

“I can’t emphasize enough how much I support solar, but I can’t understand how wrecking this green space is green,’’ she said before the meeting. “Their logic is odd: The beekeeper and the organic farm would have been too invasive to the fields, so they want to put in this solar farm? And barring that, an even bigger development?’’

Other neighbors worried about dropping home prices, and changes to the appearance of the tree-lined farm road if the project proceeds. Others asked about the sound of the solar inverters, and what it would take to tie the solar farm into the NSTAR grid.

Stacy McGovern, who is profoundly deaf and has a cochlear ear implant, told the Planning Board that she fears potential longterm effects of living just a house away from a power-generating facility.

“I feel and I know I have a right to use my prosthetic device, my cochlear implant, in my neighborhood. I feel it is my right to utilize it on Bullard Street,’’ McGovern said.

Adam and Stacy Mastrangelo, who have two children and live on a cul-de-sac next to the hay field, wanted assurances that the thousands of solar panels would not leak harmful substances into the soil, and evoked a notorious Superfund site in Ashland.

“What if panels break, say 10 or 20 or 30 of them? Does it go into the ground, will it contaminate the water? What happens then? Do we have another Nyanza? We have kids,’’ Adam Mastrangelo said.

Beals and Renewable Energy’s chief executive officer, Brian Kopperl, both defended the project during the sometimes heated meeting, saying the panels are certified to be free of harmful substances, and the operators would constantly monitor the unmanned site for needed repairs.

Kopperl declined comment after the panel voted to draft the permit denial.

O’Neil said she expects the developers to appeal the board’s decision, but plans to continue opposing any attempts to build the commercial solar facility in her neighborhood.

“Someone will have to sit down and do a cost-benefit analysis on this before they decide to pour more money into this property,’’ O’Neil said. “It’s their job, but it’s my life.’’


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