As another Rochester neighborhood prepares to welcome a new solar farm into town, the Rochester Planning Board on June 27 spent the evening reassuring residents that board members are diligent, experienced, and ready to take on the latest solar farm proposal slated for Rounseville Road at Mendell Road, just as the board has for the preceding solar energy developments.
This next solar farm proposed by Borrego Solar Systems is planned for property located along a scenic byway and within the groundwater protection district, and neighbors are not going to let it go down without a fight.
Steve Long of Borrego Solar Systems engaged in multiple debates with residents over the typical issues raised by residents facing new solar neighbors for the first time – screening, decommissioning, lamentation over the loss of a scenic view, fence color, EMF output that could affect pacemakers. Furthermore, the plan calls for clearing seven acres of woods – 836 trees of at least a 12-inch caliper to be exact, and neighbors are upset over the imminent change of the character of their neighborhood, with some of them residing in their homes for 60 years.
The 3.7-megawatt, 9,000-panel solar energy generating facility, or “farce of a government boondoggle” as board member Ben Bailey likes to refer to it, would be fenced in on a 13-acre lot surrounded by a white vinyl fence atop a berm, according to the current plan.
Sightlines from each surrounding property, as well as along the roadway, were undertaken, and to mitigate outside screening, the developer proposed grading the highest point in the field, leveling it down by five feet. Stormwater management analysis concluded that pre- and post-development watershed would be the same.
Borrego’s site plan appeared tight, and the board had few questions until the residents had their turn to ask questions. Most questions resulted in the same answer: solar farms have a favored status in Massachusetts and solar energy facility development cannot be outright stopped.
One resident feared the EMF output from the solar arrays would interfere with her 80-year-old father’s pacemaker, on which he completely depends. Long tried to reassure her of data he has that would rest her fears, but it took interference from the board to put the issue to rest and convince her that pacemakers cannot be affected.
“We’ve done this before already,” board member John DeMaggio interjected. He promised the residents that this wasn’t the board’s first time at the rodeo when it came to solar, and the board would do its due diligence on behalf of the Town.
Laurene Gerrior, chairman of the Rochester Historical Commission, spoke on behalf of the commission saying the commission voted unanimously to oppose the project, citing the loss of precious farmland integral to the character of the town and a vital part of the town’s settlement hundreds of years ago. She said this particular field especially is cited in the Town’s Open Space and Recreation Plan and Master Plan as residents’ expressed it and other fields like it to be the essence of the Town of Rochester.
Gerrior suggested the developer move the proposed solar arrays further back from the road and deeper into the total 67 acres available to Borrego in order to save the landscape for the town.
“We feel that the request is well within the Town’s jurisdiction,” suggested Gerrior.
One female resident of over 60 years told the board, “I just feel so bad about it. It’s just a shame…. It’s our rural neighborhood. It’s just so sad.”
Just because the plan has been put before the board doesn’t mean that is how it is going to end up, Johnson told the concerned residents.
After further talk about changing the color of the fence, which took the meeting past 10:00 pm, board member Gary Florindo suggested, “Let’s just rest a little. This is the first time this plan has been in front of us.” He said, of course, the color of the fence could be changed to the neighborhood’s liking, but he added that the residents should go home, think it over, talk about it and return again to the next meeting.
The hearing was continued until July 11.
Also during the meeting, Attorney George Boerger, representing Holly and James Vogel of Wellspring Farms on Hiller Road, faced the board after weeks of mounting contention over alleged ‘jumping-of-the-gun’ construction and a string of requests for continuances.
Boerger apologized for the premature construction of a proposed gravel parking area at the site, promising that no further construction would take place until Site Plan Review approval is granted.
The board made it clear that an 8-foot solid fence is required, as per the Zoning Board of Appeals, and several aspects of the plan were still missing, including setbacks established between the abutting property line and the closest parking space, a 20-foot paved apron at the egress of a non-contiguous lot off Walnut Plain Road, a cross-section of a proposed access road, and the inclusion of screening details, including plans for required fencing.
Boerger reviewed a traffic study required for the Site Plan Review, showing that earlier claims of vehicular traffic made by the Vogels were validated. The study, according to Boerger, showed that, given any hour, no more than seven vehicles entered the property with an average of 28 to 43 vehicles in a single week day. The study shows 430 vehicles on average travel down Hiller Road, with only 10 percent of them entering the property.
Johnson was adamant that aspects of the plan must match the plan submitted.
“These plans [have] got to get up to speed here with what’s actually out there,” Johnson said to Boerger. “You’re giving us a plan on something that’s already out there. Your plan better start matching what’s out there.” Johnson added, “Otherwise, at your expense, we’re going to do borings, OK?”
Johnson also accused the engineering firm, Webby Engineering Associates, of causing the delay in the process. Boerger assured the board that from now on there would be consistency and progress from the side of the Vogels.
Some abutters spoke out alleging what they have witnessed from their properties, and Mr. Vogel rebutted, calling it false information and asked the chairman to end the Vogels’ hearing for the night. Discussion continued for a bit before the public hearing was continued until July 25. Johnson and the board emphasized again the importance of submitting an accurate set of plans, with DeMaggio adding, “Enough is enough!”
In other matters, Bill Madden of G.A.F. Engineering, representing Craig Canning of Progressive Grower’s, Inc., appeared for a brief pre-submission meeting for an overview of the project before filing a Site Plan Review application. The project located off Cranberry Highway involves the construction of five additional 7,500 square-foot buildings to be utilized as a fertilizer and pesticide distribution center, an expansion of the existing agricultural supply store. Madden anticipates requesting a number of waivers pertaining to stormwater management and setbacks relative to proposed bioretention cells. The next step for the project is for an official Site Plan Review filing and a hearing scheduled.
Wrapping up other business, the board voted to go ahead and utilize funds from the Meadowatt landscaping bond and go out for bid to hire someone to complete the work that the solar farm developer has not completed as per the plan at the solar farm site on Marion Road. During the last meeting, the board decided to issue Meadowatt a letter demanding it complete the required work, including the application of mulch, or else the Town would take immediate action upon five business days, which it now shall.
The next meeting of the Rochester Planning Board is scheduled for July 11 at 7:00 pm at the Rochester Town Hall.
Rochester Planning Board
By Jean Perry