Northfield Planning Board OKs solar array, will reconvene for conditions

  • A site rendering by BlueWave Solar showing where the three solar arrays will be located off of Pine Meadow Road in Northfield. Screenshot

Staff Writer
Published: 5/21/2021 5:14:25 PM

NORTHFIELD — After several months of discussion, the Planning Board voted Thursday, with one dissenting member, to approve site permits for three dual-use solar arrays along Pine Meadow Road. Another meeting will be held at a date to be determined to set conditions for the project.

The total project will include about 26,000 panels, and produce 10.9 megawatts of electricity. “Array A,” the largest of the three arrays at roughly 26 acres, would generate about 4 megawatts of power and be situated along Pine Meadow Road in a field around the bend from Riverview Road. The second array, “Array B,” would generate about 6 megawatts of power through 1,400 panels and be located across from the Four Star Farms main building. A third array, “Array C,” at roughly 2 acres, would be located on the Connecticut River side of Pine Meadow Road and generate a half-megawatt of power. Developer BlueWave Solar has said the anticipated construction cost is roughly $20 million.

The three projects were submitted to the Planning Board individually for site plan and special permit approvals. Site plans and special permits for Array A and Array B passed by a vote of four to one, with Planning Board member Joe Graveline as the lone dissenting vote. The site plan for the smallest array, Array C, passed unanimously, and the special permit passed by a four-to-one vote with Graveline opposed.

Graveline voiced concern over providing the special permit approval to Pine Meadow Brook LLC, a special purpose entity of BlueWave Project Development LLC, according to a report by Beth Greenblatt of Beacon Integrated Solutions, who was hired as a consultant for the Planning Board.

He argued the board was “issuing a special permit to build an industrial electrical generation facility to a corporation,” and did not approve this size of a solar project being permitted in a residential area.

“I heard some of the residents ask, which I thought were appropriate questions, what do they get out of this industrial solar happening in their residential neighborhood? And the answer is they get nothing,” Graveline said.

While the project will bring upgrades to Phase 3 power, benefiting Four Star Farms, Whitney Trucking and other businesses that might come to town, residents will not see a change to their electric bills. BlueWave Solar Project Developer Jackie Firsty has said the company, as the developer, does not have control over electricity rates for area customers.

Planning Board member Homer Stavely acknowledged it was an “industrial-sized project” but said it would be located in an agricultural/residential zone, and “by being dual-use solar, there is a quantity of agriculture.”

“I don’t know how large a fraction of the economic return to the landowner will come from the farming part of it, but nonetheless it’s farming,” Stavely said.

The solar arrays are to be built on property owned by the L’Etoile family. According to a report from Greenblatt, the Array A and Array B properties are owned by Hopping Ahead LLC and Bonnie and Eugene L’Etoile. The Array C property is owned by their son and daughter-in-law, Jacob and Robin L’Etoile.

The construction contractor and the long-term solar array owner/operator that will lease the land from the L’Etoiles for the project’s initial 20-year lifespan is yet to be determined. Land beneath the solar arrays will be leased by Jesse Robertson-Dubois of Finicky Farm for a livestock and sheep operation as part of the project’s dual-use agricultural purpose.

Graveline expressed concern with setting precedent for other projects by approving this application, and said “there is a lack of science” to support dual-use agriculture solar projects. He argued the Planning Board was “not issuing a permit for farming,” but a permit for an industrial electric generation facility.

“You have a whole farm community out there that’s been talking to me behind closed doors here,” Graveline said. “They’re really concerned about losing access to this kind of quality land, and they’re also concerned about the dominos going down. We have a bulls-eye painted on us right now with this experiment going forward.”

Graveline, as in previous meetings, pointed to the town’s Solar Overlay District, saying he would already have approved this project were it proposed for that zoned area. He said zoning bylaws “consider large-scale solar to be 1,500 square feet,” but the proposed project is about 490,000 square feet.

“When is big too big?” Graveline asked. “I think this project is too big to be outside of the Solar Overlay District, too big to be in a residential neighborhood.”

While Graveline did not approve the project’s special permit and site plans, he did vote in favor of what Greenblatt considered a more favorable alternative design for the utility interconnection point of Array A after the initial permits passed. This design would see an underground conduit installed and be less intrusive to abutters, Greenblatt said, but would require more permitting work for Eversource. Planning Board members also felt it included a safer access road entry. This alternative connection point passed unanimously.

According to Greenblatt’s report, BlueWave Solar entered an agreement with the Brattleboro, Vt.-based Atowi Project on April 8, 2021, “to serve as a consultant to advise on matters relating to cultural resource considerations” and conduct survey and site investigation during the project’s construction. Greenblatt noted the applicant has collaborated with the Northfield Historical Commission and agreed to engage an archeologist for required studies and sampling. Additionally, the applicant will seek approval from the Planning Board if the studies require changes to the project.

Greenblatt’s report for Array A and Array B states the property owner will pay the town roll-back property taxes, and the town’s assessor should engage with the property owner and applicant to determine the property tax liability and timing of payment. Additionally, for all three panels, Massachusetts General Law enables the town and project owner to enter a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement for the solar personal property taxation.

Greenblatt provided several recommendations of conditions to consider when the Planning Board reconvenes. These included a stronger valued project decommission plan. She said the proposed conditions would provide improved documentation and protections for the town over the life of the project.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at or 413-930-4579.


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