The Marion Planning Board dove deep into the proposal for a solar farm on Wareham Road on June 18, despite the best efforts of the chairman to focus on the big picture of how the project fit with the Town’s solar bylaw.
Zero Point Energy Solutions representatives Harold Reader and Brendan Gove returned to the board this evening prepared to answer questions raised at the previous meeting regarding the proposal for a solar farm on a 22-acre parcel at 439 Wareham Road just west of the Weweantic River.
Reader presented a revised plan in which stormwater retention ponds were added on either side of the array field, along with a vegetative berm along Route 6, and a stone swale to the east on the river side.
The size of the array remains 15 acres of cleared area, but the number of panels has been slightly reduced due to this plan. The generation capacity remains the same.
Reader reviewed a list of questions he had prepared in response to the board’s concerns at the last meeting, assuring the board that the panels will be designed by an engineer and rated to withstand the wind and weather associated with the site. He also reiterated the minimal traffic impact of the project, with construction taking six to nine months, and subsequent traffic limited to semi-annual maintenance inspections.
Reader stated that there were no health or environmental risks from the panels, as all the chemicals are enclosed in the weather-proof glass panels.
The over-arching question was whether the proposal complies with the Town’s Solar Bylaw with respect to the size of the clearing for the array. The bylaw states, “Large-scale clearing of forested areas for the purpose of constructing systems is prohibited.”
The debate centers on the definition of ‘large-scale.’
Reader contends that, compared to other projects the company has done, this project is considered a medium size project. He also referred to the state regulations which require projects of 25 acres or more to request Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act Office approval. The state Department of Energy Resources describes a large solar array as having a 5-megawatt capacity; this project has a 3-megawatt capacity.
In response to the data provided by Reader, board member Andrew Daniel described some of the research he had done since the last meeting. Daniel suggested the state had not clearly defined what it considered “large-scale,” and contended that large-scale in western Massachusetts is different than in a seaside community like Marion.
“It’s dangerous to start making exceptions,” said Daniel. “We have the bylaws for a reason.”
Chairman Will Saltonstall noted that he had spoken with town counsel who had observed that the board had latitude in interpreting the bylaw and the definition of large-scale.
Norm Hills added, “[We are] here to see if the project fits in to the bylaws, not to make an exception – it’s important to remember that.”
Board member Chris Collings weighed in, saying, “I’ve given this a lot of thought … I want to hear about the other side of the coin – the payments to the town. I want to hear more sizzle …”
Gove responded by describing the payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) program that his company would enter into, pending negotiations with the Town. Gove estimated approximately $35-$40,000 annually over a 20-year period. He also touched on the possibility — not the guarantee — that his project may facilitate a solar project at the town landfill.
Board member Eileen Marum raised the issue of climate change, asking if the site is better for clean energy rather than residences. She highlighted the extreme weather events seen in other parts of the country and questioned the wisdom of building on this site. She described sloping land toward the Weweantic River, which could put the houses and their owners in danger of “sliding into the river” after a major rain event, saying, “It would be harmful to lose their homes, to lose their families.” She added there would be fewer school children impacting the school system if this were a solar farm versus a housing development.
Gove informed the committee there would be battery storage on site that could be made available to the town during power outages, with a four-day capacity, depending on the load. There is also the possibility of the Town and individual businesses and residents purchasing the electricity directly from the project.
Saltonstall brought the discussion back to the larger issue of the project conforming with the solar bylaw, saying, “Personally … I’m a huge proponent of solar…. My gut is trying to make peace with forest to solar.” He suggested the board needed to be rigorous in its review during the Major Site Plan Review and Special Permit phase with regard to the project’s impact on the community.
Daniel asked for the board to take a vote on the project, but Saltonstall, as well as Collings, said they did not have enough information to make that decision. Instead, the board voted on the two requests for waivers. They approved the traffic study waiver but did not approve the waiver for the environmental assessment.
Gove sought clarification from the board, describing the financial risk his company would undertake if he moved forward with the project. Hills made it clear there was no guarantee it would be approved, saying, “It is our job to see what you want to do fits in with what our bylaws say.”
As the discussion came to an end, resident Sherman Briggs asked to address the board. He spoke passionately against approving the project, saying, “I was on the Planning Board when the bylaw was created. … It was not created to help solar, but to hinder solar! [I am] concerned that town counsel said the Planning Board can [determine] large or small.”
In other business, the board approved an Approval Not Required application at 439 Wareham Street next to the Wells Gas Station, creating two conforming lots. Hills pointed out that the upland portion of the new lot was entirely in the 100-foot wetland buffer zone.
The board inched closer to forming the Master Plan Implementation Committee, settling on the members of the committee and agreeing to schedule a meeting. The board will be sending comments to MassDOT regarding the Marion-Wareham Bridge replacement on Rt. 6.
The next meeting of the Marion Planning Board is scheduled for July 9, 2018 at 7:00 pm at the Marion Town House.
Marion Planning Board
By Sarah French Storer