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Abutter conflict clouds Athol solar project

ATHOL — What began as an effort by two residents to bring renewable energy to lower electric costs for Athol Memorial Hospital, the Athol YMCA, the Adams Farm Slaughterhouse and municipal buildings in Warwick and Petersham has turned into a contentious battle with neighbors of the 3-megawatt solar farm.

Four Bearsden Road abutters of the project, owned and still being built by Soltas Energy Corp. for Athol-based Pequoig Energy LLC, have appealed both the town Planning Board’s site plan review for the project, as well as the building permit issued by the building inspector, and on Dec. 10 called for a cease-and-desist order not only on further construction of the solar-electric project, but even on operation of the farm’s slaughterhouse.

Building Inspector Brianna Skowyra took no action on the Dec. 10 request for a cease and desist order, and the Athol Zoning Board of Appeals, which is scheduled to take up on Wednesday the appeal of the planning board’s issuance of a special permit, is expected to postpone action until its Jan. 23 meeting, according to board Clerk Kala Fisher. That postponement would allow it to also consider appeal of the building permit’s issuance.

Abutters Kelly Chase, Donna Rousselle and John and Linda Jackson said in a Dec. 26 press release that the project’s developers, in part by removing about 20 trees for the project, “have deleteriously impacted the public health, safety and welfare of our rural, residentially zoned neighborhood community to allow corporate forcing of a commercial/industrial project without attending fully to our ongoing objections and concerns/questions.”

The abutters said they also plan to file their claims in superior court.

The three also say they hope to reach out to people in other Massachusetts towns with “similar experiences in fighting against corporate ruination of our rural, residential neighborhoods to make the Athol project a state and nation precedent setting case.”

Meanwhile, construction of the project on a rocky, 22-acre portion of the 128-acre farm continues slowly, with about 100 of the 12,000 panels in place, according to Ed Maltby, general manager of Adams Farm. The farm would receive about 15 percent of the solar array’s output.

“We were looking to encourage the use of green energy, to subsidize energy costs for our plant but also for the town and hospital, and this seemed like a very good thing to do for the environment and for the town,” said Maltby, who also helped the farm rebuild its slaughterhouse after a fire three years ago into a facility that serves livestock farmers around the Northeast.

“We’ve always been open to talking with the neighbors, and have had meetings with them over the last year to try to inform them of what’s happening, and to get their input, and were always ready to work with them on any problem they see. Now it’s reached a point of nuisance and accusations, which have no substance, and we regret the waste of town officials’ time and lawyers’ time. It would just be good to move forward and get the project done.”

In their appeals, attorneys for the abutters argue that since the property is under a Chapter 61A farmland tax break program, installation of PV equipment on 15 to 17 acres of the farm is not permitted use, and that it was also not a use included in the special permit granted to Adams Farm’s owners in 2007 for operation of the slaughterhouse. Attorneys for Soltas Energy argue in a Dec. 17 letter to the building inspector that inclusion of renewable energy projects has become a common part of agricultural activities and has been encouraged by the state as a way of making farming operations more economically viable.

Pequoig Energy Executive Manager Hal Gillam said, “I’m hopeful that the project will move forward as intended. Soltas, Adams Farm and Pequoig Energy made multiple attempts, both informally and during the public hearing processes to engage with the neighbors to address concerns, related to stormwater management, shade trees and the like. Adams Farm and Pequoig Energy have made good-faith efforts to address concerns. … We’ve tried throughout to be positive and constructive in the way we engage with the community, and I think we have a good appreciation of what the project concept was and how it sought to attract investments to a region that can use the investment. It’s good for the environment, the project is about creating jobs and it’s about demonstrating leadership in the world of energy.”

Athol Memorial Hospital is slated to receive about two-thirds of the project’s output, with the remaining 1 megawatt divided roughly evenly between Adams Farm, the YMCA and the two neighboring towns’ municipal buildings.

You can reach Richie Davis at
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

We faced a solid 20 acre 3 megawatt industrial scale solar electrical generation facility in our residential zoned, rural New England neighborhood too. It was originally going to be forced in with as little as 30' setbacks. It would have been surrounded by our 20 modest homes. We had attorneys, regional planners and donations to fight it. We eventually passed a new solar energy bylaw that included 200' setbacks, 200' buffers and 20 acre minimums as well as other controls. The AG approved it and it is now our governing bylaw. Don't put up with green bullying! Fight back.

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