NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Local News

April 2, 2013

Acrimony rises over solar panel plans

NEWBURY — Although selectmen may not want to see a solar farm installed on Scotland Road, it appears their hands could be tied, legally speaking.

The board laid out its position to a standing-room-only crowd on Wednesday during the continuation of a public hearing to grant a special permit for solar arrays on the Pikul Farm. Residents also packed Town Hall for the opening of the hearing two weeks ago.

A super majority of the board is needed to take action on the request, but Selectman Michael Bulgaris was not present and Chairman Joe Story recused himself, so after another round of lengthy public input, the hearing was continued until April 9 at 7:30 p.m. Story left the meeting to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest because he’s involved in a similar project on property he owns.

After receiving an update from SageStone -- the firm navigating the permitting process for farmers Donna and Gene Pikul -- Selectman Geoff Walker remarked that the laws governing solar installations don’t leave his board “a whole lot of leeway.” He urged opponents of the project to speak more about legitimate reasons under state law for selectmen to reject the proposal and less about the value of preserving pastoral views.

Specifically, the law states that a town may not deny or “unreasonably regulate” the installation of solar energy systems “except where necessary to protect the public health, safety, or welfare.”

“It really rankles me that they can put this in front of me and tell me I have to vote for it,” said Selectman Chuck Bear, But he acknowledged that is what he will likely “very reluctantly” wind up doing.

As Newbury’s first solar application, SageStone is proposing to install 14,040 solar panels on the northern most 15 acres of the 72-acre Pikul Farm. Located 1000 feet back from Scotland Road, the solar farm has the potential to generate 5 million kilowatt hours and power 4,000 houses. The property is under a 61A agricultural restriction with roughly 65 acres used as a hayfield.

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