NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

April 2, 2013

Acrimony rises over solar panel plans

BY JENNIFER SOLIS
CORRESPONDENT

---- — 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.

Selectman David Mountain noted that while it might be difficult under current law to deny the permit, his board has the authority to shape the project in ways that will minimize its impact on the community.

SageStone’s Rich Kleiman opened the hearing by making the case for why his team views the project as a plus for the town, saying the solar farm would provide:

Over $600,000 in new property taxes over the life of the project

Approximately $36,000 in building and electrical permitting fees to the town

An educational outreach program for Newbury schools

Income to allow a local family farm to remain in agricultural use.

SageStone’s modified plan moved the panels further back from Scotland Road and from the abutting Colby Farm property than was originally planned. And it’s added a hedgerow of evergreen shrub to provide ample vegetative screening.

In response to concerns raised at the hearing on March 12, Kleiman contended safety concerns are unwarranted because the miniscule amount of hazardous material used in the panels is encapsulated to prevent exposure in the event of broken glass or other damage. Manufactured by Trina Solar, the panels are made of glass, aluminum, ethylene vinyl acetate encapsulated, polyvinyl fluoride substrate, and poly crystalline silicon.

Last year Trina Solar was ranked no. 1 in sustainability by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition in a scorecard survey in which 51.1% of the industry market share participated. (To view survey results visit www.solarscorecard.com.)

Donna Pikul, who has farmed the site for decades, emphasized that 78% of her property would still be available for scenic viewing and bird watching. Both the state’s endangered species watchdogs and the conservation commission have OK’d the project. Solar power is the “energy of the future” and SageStone is a “reputable company,” Pikul said. The farmer objected to opponents’ assertions that her solar farm would impact their property values. “I don’t think a solar array is going to do anything worse than a pig farm,” Pikul said, referring to activity on the neighboring Colby Farm.

“Leave us out of it,” responded farmer Bill Colby from his seat in the audience.

A few rose in support of the Pikul’s proposal but the majority who spoke at the hearing were against it.

When it was his turn to speak, Colby urged selectmen to vote how they felt and not let contractors and others from outside the community influence the debate. “Whether it’s the best thing that ever happened to the town or the worst thing, it effects us. We live here,” he said.

Colby’s son, Jack, argued that preserving vistas directly impacted the welfare of the town. Views of pastoral scenes and cows are what attract visitors to Newbury. “It makes them want to live here,” he said.

One Scotland Road resident offered lengthy research in an attempt to raise a red flag about the use of hazardous materials like lead in the solar panels as well as the viability of the solar industry in general and Trina Solar in particular.

Kleiman described the amount of lead used as “minute” and said these are panels regularly used in schools, town halls, and backyards with no ill effects. He said that the plan exceeds required setbacks and stressed that the Pikuls are not “landscapers” for other homeowners on Scotland Road. They are farmers trying to supplement their income.

“It’s not your land. It’s the Pikul’s land -- and people don’t like to be told what to do with their land,” Kleiman said.