It was standing room only at Town Hall on Monday night for a hearing on an East Road solar array. Left, Planner Barbara Ziemba took the applicants to task over the environmental and residential issues.
Update: The planners on Sept. 23, 2013, unanimously rejected the application, deciding the project did not conform to a by-right use. The applicants are expected to appeal the decision.
ADAMS, Mass. — The Planning Board on Monday sharply questioned the viability of a solar array on private land before again continuing the hearing at the request of the applicant.
Neighbors of the proposed 1.5-megawatt photovoltaic facility on East Road spilled into the hallway as Charles LaBatt, a senior engineer with Guntlow & Associates, explained the methods proposed to address drainage issues on the 11.6-acre site.
The board had requested a secondary report by engineering company Tighe & Bond, at the cost of solar provider Apis Energy Group, to review the stormwater management and environmental impact. The company, operating as 217 East Road Solar Project Co. LLC, is seeking site approval for about 6,000 solar panels on property owned by Jeffrey and Carrie Loholdt.
But board members and the representatives for the energy company were sharply at odds on the results of the report, and on the Planning Board's authority to potentially deny the application.
"I thought the report from Tighe & Bond went quite well actually," said LaBatt, after presenting his response to eight issues raised by the report. "I've had them review other projects of mine in the past and I have no trouble with them reviewing this."
"It just does not make me feel confident," said Planner Barbara Ziemba, the most outspoken of the board members in opposition to the plan. "The Tighe & Bond report is unfavorable, the DPW is unfavorable.
"DPW is saying that they don't believe [the proposed berms and drainage] is able to hand it. Each of these panels are going to form a little river."
Commissioners raised the question of whether what amounts to "15 acres of impervious surface" represented by the panels will exacerbate water issues in that area. LaBatt responded that the addition of berms and tying drainage into the "known" part of East Road (where the town is confident of the understructure) was adequate for a project that is mostly "some metal and some posts and some impervious surfaces off the ground."
Solar representatives said police, fire and Department of Public Works had signed off on the plans.
But Ziemba insisted that the issue was more than drainage — it was about putting an industrial facility into a rural zone and its negative impact upon the value of the neighbors' property.
"I've been holding this in since March," said a fired-up Ziemba, who took first aim at the initial letter from the applicant she said was full of misinformation "if you don't read it 10 times like I did."
Ziemba believes that the energy group is misrepresenting itself as a public utility and therefore does not fall under "by right" siting as regulated by the town's zoning and state laws. Rather, she said, it's a private industrial concern trying to locate in a rural residential zone and such structures predate current laws, which she says focus on rooftop solar systems. "It does not belong there."
"I've never been concerned about such a project in all my time on here," she said, adding she had difficulty seeing how the board could approve such a plan "when we have evidence it will devalue [abuttors] property."
Attorney Adam Filson, representing the group, said the solar array confirms with the town's bylaws and is recognized as a public utility under state law. In fact, he said, the project was not seeking a permit but a site review because it was a by-right function.
According to the town's bylaws, "electrical systems and their appurtenances" are allowed in R2 and R3 zones, said Filson, who added that the legislation Ziemba had quoted actually delineated the by-right siting.
The project had to conform to criteria of the site plan review, he said, but "the site plan review is not used to prohibit a by-right use."
MGL 40A Section 3 states: "No zoning ordinance or by-law shall prohibit or unreasonably regulate the installation of solar energy systems or the building of structures that facilitate the collection of solar energy, except where necessary to protect the public health, safety or welfare."
Ziemba and Filson went back and forth a number of times over the legality of the project and board's authority over it. Filson said he was confident in his interpretation, citing previous legal findings. Ziemba said the board had the right to consider the health, welfare and safety of residents in determining whether the project could move ahead. "If we can't prohibit it, why bother having a meeting?" she said.
The hearing was continued to allow Tighe & Bond a chance to respond to plans presented at the meeting.