The proponents of a solar project at 78 Wareham Street wowed those attending the Marion Planning Board meeting on November 5 with a presentation demonstrating the economic benefits to town residents of their solar array.
David Davignon of N. Douglas Schneider & Associates gave a brief overview of the site plans and details of the project. The 78 Wareham Street property is currently owned by Henry and Judith Dejesus, who purchased the land approximately a year ago. ZPT Energy entered into a purchase and sale agreement with Dejesus for 21 acres of land, 18 acres of which they are proposing to clear for the solar farm. The site is predominantly uplands with a small isolated wetland that the Conservation Commission determined is non-jurisdictional. There are two curb cuts on Route 6 the project would use, with the northerly cut for access to the parcel. A 20-foot gravel access road will run to the rear of the property, and there will be grass maintenance roads around the site.
The 3.5-megawatt AC array is made up of 15,000 solar panels proposed at a minimum of 100 feet from nearby homes. There will be a chain link fence screened with arborvitae surrounding the array, as well as a 30-foot tree buffer to remain along Route 6. Limited grading on the site is required at the two detention ponds to ensure a separation from the water table. The drainage pattern on the site will be maintained.
Vice Chairman Stephen Kokkins asked how the project would be connected to the power grid. ZPT owner Brendan Gove explained that there is a high-tension power line easement adjacent to the parcel. Eversource, which is currently doing a system impact study, suggested ZPT connect to these power lines at the rear of the parcel. ZPT proposes siting a trailer to house large-scale lithium ion batteries, equipped with its own HVAC and fire suppression systems. The 4-6 month construction timeline includes interconnection to the grid.
ZPT provided a comprehensive look at the economic impact the solar farm would have on energy costs for residents. Additionally, the municipal cash windfall from the project in the form of taxes and other benefits sweetened the pot for the board.
According to ZPT, this project would prevent 5,107 tons of carbon from being released into the atmosphere, the equivalent of 5,457 acres of forest storing that same carbon. The board’s ensuing debate prompted former Planning Board member and current Marion Energy Management Committee member Jennifer Francis, who helped write the current bylaw on solar farms to comment.
At issue with the bylaw has been the language stating “large-scale clearing of forested areas for the purpose of constructing systems is prohibited.” Members of the board have been wrestling with the definition of “large-scale.”
Francis noted that it was “short-sighted” to restrict the cutting of trees for a solar farm, considering the amount of carbon saved by the renewable energy source. She asked the board to consider the alternatives for the site – 40B housing or another subdivision.
Gove stated that developing solar in the Marion area is at a premium, citing the lack of suitable land and the high cost of real estate. The infrastructure has been poorly maintained, Gove continued, and with this project his company proposes to upgrade both the Tremont Substation in Wareham and the Crystal Spring Substation in Mattapoisett. This would also provide the opportunity for the Town to move forward with the development of the solar array on the town landfill, a project currently thwarted by the high cost of infrastructure upgrades.
Gove noted that his company would be interested in developing that site as well. Still, regardless of that, the infrastructure upgrades would be completed.
The ZPT project, if it entered into a community solar project with the Town, could provide residents an energy credit off their energy bill of approximately $5,728 over a 20-year period. This would appear as a 10 percent floating discount applied to a resident’s entire monthly bill from Eversource, including both supply and distribution.
ZPT would also provide revenue to the Town through a PILOT program (payment in lieu of taxes) of over $1 million over a 20-year period.
ZPT also promised a donation of $10,000 to the Tree Committee to plant trees throughout town.
Gove illustrated the value to homeowners of the solar array, observing, “If you don’t want to put holes in your roof, if you don’t want to look at it or smell it, put the array where the town wants to and let residents take advantage of it.” He added that PILOT payments could be flexible. If the town identifies a need, his company could respond to it, within certain parameters.
Planning Board member Norm Hills remarked that the town was already in a municipal aggregation program through SRPEDD. Gove said that was no problem – whoever supplies the energy to the town, the 10 percent discount still applied.
The discussion returned to the question of large-scale tree clearing. Gove reiterated the point from a previous meeting that the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act considers large-scale to be 25-plus acres. Chairman Will Saltonstall stressed the point that scale is about context, saying, “Large is defined by the Town’s perspective, to protect the neighbors. … This is an industrial use in a residential area.”
When Francis asked how many trees would be removed, ZPT representative Hal Reader said that approximately 2,500 trees would be cleared. Francis suggested that perhaps the company could be more generous in their donation for trees in town.
Town resident Sherman Briggs quipped, “I like trees, but we could sure use a town hall!”
The board continued the hearing for two weeks so it could fully consider the bylaw question before moving forward with a consulting engineer.
In other business, the board discussed the Briggs Residence E project and what its flexibility is with dimensional requirements.
Member Chris Collings observed that the board held some responsibility in the conflict with the requirements.
“We wrote up the Master Plan: we came up with new ideas – let’s make it possible on the conflicts with the new ideas,” said Collings, later adding, “[We need to] be able to give a simple face to developers, [assure them] the ground isn’t going to shift beneath them. The ZBA is dealing with the trees in the forest – we are trying to change the forest.”
Kokkins felt that getting town counsel’s opinion on the Planning Board’s role was a top priority, while Saltonstall concluded by saying the board needs to take a position that was “defensible.”
The board took up a request from the ZBA to comment on a request by P&L Realty Trust to convert an existing in-law apartment to an unrestricted apartment. The board drafted a letter to the ZBA, taking issue with the language in the permit request.
The bylaw the request referenced does not allow for an unrestricted apartment, rather only an apartment that provides affordable housing. In its letter, the Planning Board emphasized to the ZBA the affordable housing stipulation would need to be part of any approval of an accessory apartment. However, the ZBA had already approved the unrestricted apartment at its meeting on November 1.
During that meeting last Thursday, ZBA member Betsy Dunn commented that the applicant was a friend of hers and suggested recusing herself from the matter, but, instead, participated in the discussion and rendered her positive vote.
The next meeting of the Marion Planning Board is scheduled for November 19 at 7:00 pm at the Marion Town House.
Marion Planning Board
By Sarah French Storer