Residents Squint at Latest Solar Proposal

The January 22 meeting of the Rochester Planning Board proved to be a long night’s journey under a fading Blood Moon, as three solar array projects came before the members.

First up with an informal presentation and discussion of a proposed solar array field on Marion Road located on property owned by Craig Canning, Rochester Farms LLC.

Represented by Sarah Rosenblat of SWEB Development, Canning’s project caused one abutter to tear up, and another to question how impacted his views would be once the solar panels were installed.

Rosenblat described a project where the panels would be installed on 2-foot tall support racks, meaning that the completed installation could not be seen from the roadway once the 7-foot tall stockade fencing was installed along with additional screening of native trees and plantings.

The 4-megawatt system will be one of the largest solar energy projects in the area, but Rosenblat asserted that that did not equate to more construction noise or disruption. She estimated that the project would take approximately six to eight weeks to build.

The Planning Board members for their part were primarily concerned with how the completed project would appear to the abutters and if the low profile of the panels would impact their efficiency in collecting the sun’s energy.

There was also some discussion amongst the board members as to whether or not the developer should be required to lease the screened areas as well as the production acreage versus simply using easement rights to maintain landscaping. This would become a bigger bone of contention when the next informal discussion came before the commission.

Abutter Dolores Dernier, 198 Marion Road, whose property is next door to the Canning property began her comment by saying, “I’m not going to object…” but found herself overcome by emotion and needed a moment to collect her thoughts, continuing on to lament “how one family can block my beautiful view.”

While the board was sympathetic, they also recognized Canning’s right to develop his property, with Chairman Arnold Johnson saying, “This wasn’t the project we wanted.” He also assured those in attendance that this was just an informal discussion and nothing was set in stone yet.

Rosenblat said Canning plans to continue to farm much of his acreage, but that some other parcels might be sold in the future. She said a rental agreement with Canning and a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement with the town were the financial plans for the project.

But the board members also struggled with the height of the solar racks and their concern that heavy snowfall would bury the panels, prompting Planning Board member Ben Bailey to ask, “Is design of the project really up to us?” He thought it wasn’t in the purview of the Planning Board to concern itself with the design of the project but instead to focus on the screening of the project, while Johnson took a more holistic approach, believing the entire project was their responsibility.

“I disagree: I don’t think we should tell them about their design,” Bailey said.

Rosenblat presented 3-D renderings and visual simulation of what the project would look like once completed, and agreed to check several other abutters’ views before returning with more fleshed out technical documents.

Johnson said that, with a long list of large, complicated projects coming before the Planning Board in the coming months, the board would only be hearing such cases once a month versus several times in any given month. Canning’s project is awaiting a formal filing, so a continuation date was not noted at this time; however, a peer-review consultant fee of $3,000 was set.

Clean Energy Collective was next for their informal discussion of a proposed solar array on Sarah Sherman Road. Represented by Evan Watson of Prime Engineering, and Doug Carton of Clean Energy Collective, their project plans were basic and not ready for more than that, as Watson discussed the placement of solar panels well away from jurisdictional wetlands. He said, given the location of the solar arrays away from roadways and most existing structures, extensive screening might not be necessary. Watson invited the board members to visit the site, which was agreed upon.

Then once again came the issue of easements used for landscaping and screening purposes versus leased lands.

Johnson argued that leased lands stood a better change of being maintained for screening purposes versus easements. Watson and Carton countered that it was a matter of liability for the developer. Bailey again said he wasn’t opposed to expanding the leased area, but questioned if the board had the right to mandate such a business detail, saying, “What is our authority?” After further debate it was determined that town counsel should weigh in on the parameters of the board’s authority in such matters.

Borrego Solar Systems, represented by Steve Long, also came before the Planning Board as his solar array project located on Rounseville Road was faulted by the board for flooding on Mendell Road.

Long tried to explain that the stormwater flow could not have been anticipated, a point questioned by Johnson at several intersections in the conversation, and that they were working towards the removal of berms so that water would move away from the roadway. Johnson said that the removal of eight acres of mature pine trees was the problem, that the trees not only soaked up water they also held water back. Long countered that his project did not add more water to the property than prior to clearing, a point lost on the board members. Long will instruct the construction crew to remove berms and monitor stormwater flow moving forward.

Also coming before the board in a continued public hearing was Bob Rogers of G.A.F. Engineering for a site plan review for property owned by Decas Real Estate Trust. The project is a planned conversion of an existing building for a daycare center. Stormwater plans were reviewed and Rogers pointed out changes that were made at the request of the Planning Board.

Things moved along smoothly until Johnson told Rogers that, given the heavy agendas anticipated in the coming weeks, his project wouldn’t be heard at the first meeting in February. Rogers took umbrage to having his client’s project pushed off, and urged the board to hear their filing as a pending real estate closing in April was in jeopardy. Johnson relented, as did the other board members. The application was continued until February 12.

The next meeting of the Rochester Planning Board is scheduled for February 12 at 7:00 pm at the Rochester Town Hall.

Rochester Planning Board

By Marilou Newell

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