PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Emotion isn't often shown during Conservation Commission meetings, a board known for its technicality and dullness.
But Michele Rivers-Murphy could barely hold it in Thursday night, sitting the City Council Chambers because as the snow fell outside, Rivers-Murphy and what seemed like the entire Ridge Neighborhood had won a battle against a solar array proposal for the Pontoosuc Lake Country Club.
After months of debate and site visits, the Conservation Commission denied a permit to Nexamp to build in the wetland buffer zone for a 6.5-megawatt solar array.
"There will be unintended and direct consequences on our wetlands," Rivers-Murphy had said, with her husband, Tom, holding up a poster board of displays and as she picked through a binder with page after page of prepared remarks against it.
The Boston-based Nexamp proposed using nine holes of the golf course for the solar facility, covering 25 acres of the course's 131 acres of land. It called for some four acres of trees to be cut and a new access road at the corner of Hancock and Ridge Avenue.
When it was first presented, the neighbors felt blindsided by it and attended a ConCom meeting to see what it was all about. Nexamp then held a neighborhood meeting to go over the plans. And the neighbors didn't like what they heard.
In October, a large number of people showed up in the council chambers. They were prepared and they were ready to fight it all the way. They fought it at the Community Development Board, again coordinated among the neighbors as to what to address and with photos and displays. They fought it at the Conservation Commission, with prepared remarks specifically addressing the access road which borders wetlands and is the aspect of the project the Conservation Commission looked at.
The neighbors make arguments about public safety, traffic, tree cutting, water runoff, screening, impacts to wildlife and the future of the panels.
"As a private citizen, building on my own property, I had to do 200 feet from that stream," Oliver Williams, of Hancock Road, said about a garage he is building and arguing against the plan to have a roadway just 17 feet from wetlands.
Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Simonelli joined the battle and cited safety concerns with trucks on Hancock Road during the installation. The proposal comes right after he was successful in petitioning the city and the state to implement a thru-truck ban on the road.
Nexamp adjusted plans multiple time as they went to appease the neighbors but on Thursday the company felt they had exhausted all alternatives.
"We believe we provided a design as minimally impactful as possible," said engineer Kelly Fike, from SVE Associates,
Fike presented plans she had developed showing the road further from the wetlands but said it would require even more tree cutting. She said it also would have had to align with Sheffield Street and significantly reduced visibility.
Kelly Fike said after making several changes and then reviewing all alternatives, the plan presented Thursday was the best to limit the damaged potentially caused to wetlands.
The best design for that access road didn't give the Conservation Commission enough confidence that the protected wetlands wouldn't be harmed.
Conservation Commissioner Jonathan Lothrop said he was particularly concerned with water runoff issues with the panels being there -- a concern Williams had also particularly noted because of the location of his property.
"It sure looks like at least half of the proposed area is going to be covered by these panels, if not more," Lothrop said.
Fike said the water runs off the panels and will follow pretty much the same drainage patterns as it currently does. But, she added that the grass won't be mowed as short as the golf course and more vegetation will be there to soak up the water. She added that the runoff will be cleaner as well because they won't be using chemicals to treat the grounds.
Both sides had laid out their case but in the end, the Conservation Commission agreed with the neighbors.
Rivers-Murphy, who had taken the lead, was on the verge of crying as the motion to deny was made. And she erupted in applause when the motion was passed.
But after shuttling out of the chambers, the neighbors met in the hallway for a lengthy period of time, getting prepared to stay on top of the issue to see what could come next.
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