PITTSFIELD, Mass. — From noise, to scenery, to even attacking the character of the company looking to install a large solar array on Churchill Street, neighbors tried everything to fight the project.
But despite presenting their case claiming that the 499-kilowatt planned array encompassing a dozen acres of land would be a detriment to the neighborhood, the Zoning Board of Appeals granted the special permit with conditions in a 4-1 vote. Some of the board members voiced concern that the 40 acres of land being used could never been screened enough as to not impact the neighbors.
"I am not convinced that this project is not detrimental to the neighborhood. I don't think there is anyway this can be screened," said member Miriam Maduro, saying the array would look "like something out of Star Wars." "I wouldn't want this in my back yard."
Maduro was the sole vote against granting the special permit. The project is proposed by Churchill Solar LLC, a subsidiary of Heliovaas. The company owns and operates solar arrays throughout the state and is looking to construct a total of five arrays on 40 acres of land. The company plans to buy four lots that were previously subdivided and eyed for residential homes and an abutting parcel owned by Michael Bianco. The project will produce 499 kilowatts in total.
In a previous ZBA meeting, Brent White of White Engineering outlined the project. Of particular interest was screening to keep it from impacting the neighbors and White said the company hired an independent consultant to review it and recommend best practices.
"We're trying to put forth a proposal that adequately protects the site and the neighbors," Raipher Pellegrino, one of Heliovaas' principals, said, adding that every issue raised by neighbors has been addressed and that the company conceded every point made by the consultant.
The project will be screened to all sides with berms and trees. But there was still disputes from the neighbors over the distances between trees, the alignment of them, the type, and the height. In an attempt to address those concerns, the ZBA added conditions that require all trees - except for those on the south side where the sun shines onto the panels - to be at minimum 10-feet tall and maintained for the lifetime of the project. And, a condition that the alignment of them provides the "best screening possible."
Even then, member Thomas Goggins said, ""it cannot be screened entirely. It cannot be invisible." He voiced reservations about it the ultimate outcome, but voted in favor of the permit.
Residents showed up in numbers Tuesday in their continued efforts to oppose the project. The main argument being made was that it would change the character of the area dramatically by introducing a commercial usage. The location right next to the Lanesborough border is what one resident called "the country" and a character defined by farms and agriculture.
"The serenity and beauty will be forever destroyed unless you deny this permit," said neighbor Ray Jones.
Jones delivered a prepared speech opposing the project, invoking 1Berkshires' marketing and local history. The tagline "life is calling" crafted by 1Berkshire means more than just having people visit, but having people live here full time, Jones said. What makes the area a great place live, is because of the scenic beauty he feels will be lost with the project. He then cited Union Station, which was torn down and now a source of regret, and the success of saving the Colonial Theater, an asset. The natural surrounding is an asset, he said.
"Sometimes it is wise to preserve what we have to be enjoyed now and for future generations," Jones said.
He then took shots at the company saying they were "not in good standing with the secretary of state." Pelligrino responded that the company doesn't have an updated certificate of good standing because the company hadn't yet filed its annual report, and not because of nefarious reasons.
Resident Steve Rich said there are plenty of other places for an array to go, suggesting brownfields properties are much better suited for it.
"I do believe it is going to be difficult and impossible to truly shield this array from the neighbors," he said.
Others questioned the noise and the health impacts. White said the noise levels come from just four structures centered in the arrays, which make the same level of noise from five meters away as two people talking. It's equivalent to the sound of a fan or an air conditioning unit, the developers said. No health impacts have been proven to be caused by solar arrays
The neighbors continued to question the impacts on the area, saying the project is out of character. To which White said there has been plenty of commercial usage surrounding it from a commercial nursery, to a former gravel bed on the other side, to landscaping businesses. Jones runs a landscaping business there currently, but says he preserves some 18 acres to respect neighbors, and his nursery businesses hasn't been in operation since 2010. Further, he says those uses are agricultural, which fits into the rural character.
"There is no retail operation done on our property at all and hasn't been done since 2010," Jones said.
Bianco runs his landscaping business on land abutting the parcel he is selling. Bianco spoke in favor of the project saying that on his land he had the "right" to build berms, fence off his land, and add shrubs for privacy. But, he said he doesn't have the right to the scenery - its a "privilege" because at any point another owner can opt to do what he did on their own land.
Another commercial operation continues to make its mark on that land. In 2007, the parcel was eyed for 50 or so residential homes but that was shot down by the Community Development Board. A new plan emerged for about eight homes but that was never completed. Instead, the current owner of the four parcels, Central Berkshire Land Development LLC, leased a portion to Amerigreen Recycling, which has since violated Conservation Commission regulations.
White said Churchill Solar LLC. is planning to take on that order of conditions to clean up the site - imposed on the current owners - when it takes ownership. He said the clean up is placed on the deed and there are a number of land-use issues being sorted out among the various companies and in the courts.
"We have every incentive to clean that site," White said.
Nonetheless, the Zoning Board of Appeals added a condition that that work is completed before construction on the solar array begins.
A final condition was added that a decommissioning escrow account is created with enough funds to fully remove the equipment at the end of its lifespan, regardless of the value of the material. The developers say the value of the material is worth more than the labor to remove it so in many cases, cities and towns opt not to require decommissioning accounts, and scrap companies would also be willing to put in the labor for free and make it up in selling the material. The developers even included a $250 per year contribution to an escrow account, which added with the material they feel is more than adequate.
But, the Zoning Board of Appeals decided that it wasn't enough because the members don't know what the value of the material will be in the future. So, the condition requires the company to have enough aside for a full removal.
"I don't think the decommissioning plan is adequate to ensure that the city is not left holding the bag in some fashion," Goggins said in support of the condition.
An added aspect to the debate is that state law reads "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." But the Zoning Board of Appeals is able to deny special permits, which is needed in this case, if it is determined to be detrimental to the character of the neighborhood.
In the end, Chairman Albert Ingegni hopes the company and the neighbors can find a way to reach a compromise.
"I would just urge the applicants to sit with the neighborhood and see if some of this can be resolved," he said.
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