, Newburyport, MA

March 23, 2013

Solar farm plan grazing in Newbury

Common Pasture proposal drawing heat from residents


---- — NEWBURY — A proposed solar farm on a portion of the 72-acre Pikul Farm on Scotland Road that is considered part of the historic Common Pasture isn’t winning much favor with residents.

J.R. Colby of Colby Farm, whose family’s farmland is adjacent to the proposed site of the project, said a solar farm would not only impact Scotland Road, it would “change the whole face of the town.”

“The Common Pasture is a tiny, tiny fraction of what it once was,” said Colby, whose family has farmed in town since 1955. “When open land gets changed or developed, it doesn’t come back,” he said.

But Richard Kleiman of Sage Stone — the largest solar development firm in Massachusetts — assured that solar farms are “very benign sites” and that agricultural activity. including haying and the tending of sheep, would still continue on Pikul Farm if the project advances.

Land-use arrangements such as this are a way to help local family farmers stay in business, Kleiman said.

But after more than two hours of discussion, the Board of Selectmen last week held off voting on Sage Stone’s request and continued its public hearing on the project until next week. Selectmen are the granting authority in town for special permits required for solar developments.

Sage Stone’s proposal represents the town’s first solar application and underscores the need to establish a solar bylaw in Newbury, Planning Board Chairman Kathleen Pearson told the standing room-only crowd on hand for the public hearing. Pearson said her board is working on drafting such a bylaw.

The hearing continuation was originally planned for Tuesday, but was moved to next Wednesday, March 27, because of a conflict with another meeting on issues concerning erosion on Plum Island. The hearing will continue during the selectmen’s meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. in Town Hall.

The continuation came in part because of some confusion over how the site for the photovoltaic power station was identified in the legal notice announcing the hearing that ran in the newspaper.

While it appears the hearing was properly advertised, many residents who spoke at the meeting last week felt the ad — which listed the property as 0 Scotland Road — was less than transparent. Kleiman apologized for the confusion, but said he relied on information provided by the town assessors office. All abutters also received individual letters notifying them of the hearing.

The proposed solar farm site, just west of Colby Farm, is owned by Gene and Donna Pikul. Pikul Farm currently falls under the state’s Chapter 61A classification, which gives preferential tax treatment to landowners that maintain their property as open space for agriculture or as forestland.

Tax penalties are often involved when a change of use occurs with Chapter 61A land, officials said, and town counsel is reviewing whether the new plan might impact Pikul Farm’s agricultural status. Conservation Agent Doug Packer said a solar farm could be deemed a change on the property under the Use of Wetlands Act.

At the public hearing, Kleiman together with an engineer for Sage Stone made the case for their plan to install 14,040 solar panels on the northernmost 15 acres of Pikul Farm. The solar panels would be installed 1k000 feet in from the road, they said.

Kleiman argued the solar farm would provide a sustainable green energy source, with the potential to generate 5 million kilowatt hours and power 4,000 houses. It would also bring in new tax revenue to Newbury and deductions in the town’s energy costs through an energy credit system.

Roughly 65 acres of Pikul Farm is a hayfield cut twice a year to provide feed for livestock and mulch hay. A typical annual yield runs between 7,000 and 9,000 bales of hay. Kleiman said the vast majority of the farmland would still serve its same agricultural purpose.

In addition, his plan calls for allowing sheep to graze in the area of the solar farm, which would represent an additional agricultural use. Under the direction of a shepherd, the grazing sheep would help maintain grass levels around the photovoltaic panels, which will run 7 feet high and be set apart at 15-foot intervals. The panels will be enclosed by a chain-link fence.

Pearson said she was “quite impressed” with Sage Stone’s design, which exceeds the setback requirements the Planning Board is considering adopting in its solar bylaw.

But most residents balked at the idea of a solar farm in their backyard, particularly on a parcel that is considered part of the historic Common Pasture. At one time encompassing a swath of land from Plum Island to Haverhill, the Common Pasture describes land used continuously for farming, harvesting timber and pasturing livestock since Colonial times.

Because it is considered regionally significant from an historic, scenic, environmental and agricultural perspective, a movement is on to preserve what remains of the Common Pasture. The last major encroachment onto the land came with the installation of Interstate 95.

The issue is a personal one for Colby and his father, Bill, whose farm runs adjacent at 50 Scotland Road.

The senior Colby was emotional as he talked about working the land for nearly 60 years and his dream of leaving the farm to his children some day. He and his son both worried about the unanticipated impact solar technology might have on the land and on their animals.

“We sell food to the public from our farm. If there is some kind of spill or contamination, we’re done,” J.R. Colby said.

Selectmen agreed more information about the materials used in the panels was needed.

Kleiman, however, said his team reoriented its original plan to move it farther away from Colby Farm. And he argued that given the recent ravages from storms impacted by climate change, creating green energy could actually be considered a beautiful thing.

“Just look at what’s happening on Plum Island,” he said.

But most who attended the hearing felt preserving the area’s pastoral vistas and its inviting habitat for animals and birds should be the priority.

“I’d rather look at five people (bird watching) with binoculars than at a field of glass,” one resident said.

Selectmen Chairman Joe Story has recused himself from discussing or voting on the proposal to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. Story is working on a similar project on land he owns.