Many Minor Changes = One Major Change

The solar project slated for 268 Mattapoisett Road has been stalled after the Rochester Planning Board on January 23 determined that proposed changes to the plan, although seemingly minor when viewed singularly, all add up to one major change to the plan. Thus, a new public hearing must be scheduled and abutters duly notified.

At the last meeting on January 9, representatives from developer Clean Energy Collective realized the board was not quick to agree that a request to change the elevation of a berm and fence was as simple as they had hoped.

Due to some site elevation discrepancies between existing conditions and those noted in the plan and because the bedrock below the proposed panels was denser than expected, the developer’s options were to either raise up the berm and increase the height of the fence or ask the board if they could blast in excess of the board’s original approval.

But the board was not pleased with either of those two options, so they continued the discussion until January 23 and waited until the board’s peer review engineer, Ken Motta, could weigh in on the matter.

But before Motta spoke on January 23, Attorney Richard Serkey, flanked by President of Renewables for CEC Tom Hunt, who flew in from Colorado just for the meeting, and some other new faces, spoke on behalf of the developer.

“If your purpose was to make sure that you got Clean Energy Collective’s attention, you certainly did,” Serkey said.

Serkey said the developer was ready to comply 100 percent with all the comments Motta made in his report, and at that the discussion started.

Hunt addressed the board next, saying, “Our goal is to work with you … and to acknowledge that the (elevation) error was on our part.”

The prior meeting left off with CEC considering taking the board’s advice of attempting further hammering and drilling to make the actual elevations of certain areas of the site before requesting any changes in the amount of blasting, but none of that was subsequently explored.

One of the contractors said the developer was advised not to go ahead with the excessive hammering because it was not the “optimal option.”

Hunt said, after a couple weeks of work, he had what he felt was a good plan “…that’s a minor modification…”

“I apologize for the fact that we have to take up more of your time on this due to the discrepancies,” Hunt said.

Planning Board Chairman Arnie Johnson determined, however, that there was still some important data missing from CEC’s submission that evening, and later told Serkey et al. that nothing could move forward until all pertinent information was turned in, including a “topo” (topographic survey) of the entire site, added Motta.

“The board tonight really needs to make the determination if these are minor or significant [changes],” said Johnson, in order to start the notification process of abutters.

To summarize for the board CEC’s proposed changes versus what was approved, Engineer Evan Watson of Prime Engineering said the topo of area at the site was “58”, but is actually “60”, which makes some panels visible from Mattapoisett Road. Because of the elevation discrepancies, the stormwater management system would also need to be reassessed. To mitigate that elevation inconsistency, CEC proposed elevating the outside berm another 2 to 3 feet in height, with the screening fence of 8 feet placed 6 inches above the top of the berm.

Planning Board member Gary Florindo questioned the feasibility of that proposal, saying that he had compared that proposal, which would equal a screening element of 17 feet in height, with the height of his barn on his property.

“And I thought, ‘This is gonna look crazy,’” said Florindo.

Johnson turned to Motta and asked the million-dollar question of the night: “In your opinion, are these changes major or minor?”

“There are major changes,” said Motta. “Mirror [the new proposals] against the original plan, what do you have left from the original plan?”

Then the board members offered their own opinions, which differed at first.

“I personally think they’re minor changes,” said board member John DiMaggio. “He’s not changing a lot of the plan itself … Some of the grades, elevations, it’s not like he’s redrawing a new plan.…”

Board member Chris Silveira said he felt like nearly everything was changed in the plan.

“It’s tough for me to call it a minor change when we had to have all new plan sets done.… It’s a tough call. I see all the sides of it…. My thought is, just because the rules are the rules, I think it’s a major change.”

“A lot of minor changes combined add up to one major change,” commented board member Lee Carr.

Florindo suggested a site visit before making any decision, which was what board member Mike Murphy said he would fancy as well.

“You don’t get the right answer until you get your shoes dirty,” said Florindo.

Board member Ben Bailey disagreed, saying that Motta was hired to go out and get his feet dirty on behalf of the board, and the board puts its trust in Motta.

Town Counsel Blair Bailey (no relation to the former Bailey) cautioned the board, saying, “You may think it’s major, you may think it’s minor – the question comes, what would an abutter think?”

If the board determined the changes were minor, abutters would be denied the right to appeal the changes from the original plan.

“What you’re doing is taking away somebody’s right to appeal your change … because you’re making a decision they can’t appeal.”

The board decided to allow CEC to continue some work on the stormwater basins only to mitigate flooding that property owner Michael Forand says is now taking place at the site, but that was it.

Then Johnson rendered his opinion – these changes are major.

“I think that when you boil that down, there’s not a whole lot left of our decision that hasn’t been tweaked at some point…” said Johnson.

A site visit would be scheduled once all data was submitted, he said before asking for a motion, which included the decision to schedule a public hearing and notify abutters – but again, not until the data was complete.

The vote was unanimous.

Also during the meeting, the Special Permit for a large-scale solar farm at 453 Rounseville Road filed by Borrego Solar Systems, although inching closer toward approval, was continued again until February 13 after a brief discussion and some comments from abutters.

The public hearing for the Special Permit application for a Back Lot filed by Madeleine Monteiro for 0 Walnut Plain Road was continued until February 13 at the request of the applicant. Johnson said the applicant is still working with the Building Department on certain aspects of the proposal.

The next meeting of the Rochester Planning Board is scheduled for February 13 at 7:00 pm at the Rochester Town Hall.

Rochester Planning Board

By Jean Perry


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