Rowe solar farm unlikely to see light of day

ROWE — After several public hearings, the town Planning Board is evenly split over whether to approve a $15 million solar farm on Tunnel Road. And unless all four eligible board members support the Seaboard Solar proposal at a Jan. 8 meeting, the permit is likely to be denied.

Robert Dykeman, the Planning Board’s fifth member and landowner of the proposed 100-acre site, watched Tuesday morning’s session from the audience as his colleagues deliberated. He has recused himself.

In a large carton designated for public documents were design blueprints and plans, a report on habitat impact by consultant Bill Lattrell, recommendations from engineering consultant Jean Christy of Tighe & Bond, Conservation Commission statements, a 13-page packet submitted by Selectmen’s Chairman Marilyn Wilson, and a letter opposing the project submitted by Lisa Danek-Burke and signed by 30 residents.

Tuesday morning was the first time Planning Board members spoke on the issue, and, like their fellow residents, they had strong opposing views.

Town Counsel Donna MacNicol said the town’s bylaws required a “super majority vote” for both the earth-moving permit and the special permit for the electricity-generating solar array. This would mean a unanimous “yes” vote by the four eligible Planning Board members.

Board member Doug Wilson said he feels that solar “is the least objectionable energy source that we have.”

“I’m feeling this is about as benign and gentle a project as I can imagine,” said Wilson, who pointed out that hydroelectric energy from Bear Swamp was going off to Boston, and that chemical herbicide is used under power lines to keep the vegetation down. He said he hates to see clear-cut forests, but that the proposal, to clear-cut about 45 acres of the 100-acre property, only represents the loss of .003 percent of Rowe’s forested area.

“Compared to the nuclear energy which we had for 30 years, this seems benign to me, and we should go for it,” said Wilson.

“I’m sorry — but I’m against it,” said Planning member Robin Reed. She said she could support the solar farm if it were set on a low-level toxic brownfields site — but not on forestland and wildlife habitat to be clear-cut. “They would be taking down 11 types of trees — some between 50 to 80 years old,” she said. “You have animals that use this land.”

Chairman David Roberson said he thought the loss of forest and natural habitat “seems like an awful lot to give up for what, in the scheme of things, is a relatively small amount of power. You can’t compare 6 megawatts of solar with 1,000 megawatts of nuclear power,” he said, referring to the closed Yankee Rowe nuclear power plant, which brought jobs and tax revenues to Rowe during the 30 years of its existence.

Roberson was also concerned that approving this project in a forested region would set a precedent for more such solar arrays on undeveloped land.

“DOER (Department of Energy and Resources) strongly discourages locations that would require extensive tree-cutting,” he said.

He said the $36,000 per year offered as Payment in Lieu of Taxes by the developer “is almost nothing.”

“Getting back to the precedent, if we approve this project, anybody wanting to develop another (solar farm) anywhere is going to be pointing to this project and saying, ‘why not us?’”

Roberson, who lived “off the grid” with solar energy for 12 years, said the quality of life in Rowe — not the low tax rate — is the main reason he lives here, and he wanted to see the natural habitat maintained.

Jodi Brown said at least three abutters to the Tunnel Road property are in support of the solar farm.

“Nobody loves trees any more than me,” she added. “I have a feeling, if we vote no, they will cut that forest anyway — to log it.”

Wilson said he didn’t want to talk about the issue “indefinitely” if there was no chance of getting everyone to agree.

The board held off on voting for logistical reasons, because of the volume of paperwork to be filed right before the holidays. If the board had voted Tuesday, it would have to file a report citing reasons for their vote and giving records of the steps taken to research the issues. Board members agreed to vote on the site plan review, earth-moving permit and special permit in January.

The solar farm proposal was to build a ground-mounted solar array of about 21,000 photovoltaic solar crystalline modules, along with inverters to convert the direct current into alternating current (AC) electricity. The modules would be set back 1,500 to 1,700 feet back into the woods, and not be visible from the roadway or from abutters’ properties.

In an email sent after Tuesday’s hearing, attorney Kevin Parsons, a spokesman for Seaboard Solar said:

“Although two members have expressed disfavor of the project, we are hopeful the Planning Board will accept (that) Rowe has expressed a desire that it wants large solar generation facilities in the Town as evidenced when it approved the bylaw just two years ago. If this application is denied, it calls to question whether the vote taken by town residents, in November 2011, will be honored and respected.”

“This is an ideal location for such a project,” said Parsons. “The solar farm would not be visible from the road nor any households. If the Planning Board decides it does not want this project, it calls to question whether it would approve any solar project, and further whether Rowe’s designation as a ‘Green Community’ is warranted.”

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at: dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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