, Newburyport, MA

April 11, 2013

Selectmen ready to vote on controversial solar farm


---- — NEWBURY — “When you see the cows, you know you’re home,” Marlene Schroeder told selectmen at the continuation of a special permit hearing to allow a solar array on privately owned farmland on Scotland Road.

Schroeder was quoting the late Hack Pramberg, former president of the Institution for Savings in Newburyport and “enthusiastic local booster,” as a way to stress the economic value of the area in which the proposed solar installation is sited — and the negative impact on public welfare she feels the project would have on a spot referred to as “the gateway” into Newbury and Newburyport.

The 72-acre farm, owned by Gene and Donna Pikul, is part of a parcel known as the Common Pasture, a rural swath of land that has remained relatively unchanged for over 300 years.

Tuesday’s hearing ran for 65 minutes, and attendance, though slightly less than at the previous two sessions of this public hearing, still filled Town Hall. Ultimately, selectmen closed the hearing and plan to publicly deliberate the proposal — which calls for installing 14,040 solar panels on 15 acres of the Pikul Farm — at their next meeting on April 23.

Although statutorily selectmen now have 90 days to decide whether to issue the requested permit, the board is operating under a shorter, self-imposed deadline because of looming town elections at the end of the month.

The special permit process requires a super majority vote of the board, but with incumbent Chuck Bear facing a challenge from Mike Doyle on the ballot on April 30, there’s a chance he might not be available to vote on the issue after the town election. And Chairman Joe Story has recused himself throughout the hearing to avoid an appearance of conflict of interest because he is working on a similar proposal on property he owns.

Town Counsel Ginny Kremer said there is a provision for when a voting member is unable to see the pubic hearing process through to the end — due to a death or unforeseen circumstance — but she was not certain it would apply in this case. It might turn out the entire hearing process, which began on March 12, would have to start anew.

At the start of this session Selectman Michael Bulgaris, who chaired the meeting in Story’s absence, asked for comments only from those who hadn’t spoken at previous session or who had something new to add to the discussion.

Schroeder began by citing a definition of “public welfare” found in Black’s Law Dictionary, considered to be a definitive legal resource. Under state law selectmen may not prohibit or unreasonably restrict a solar project except where it impacts public health, safety or welfare. According to the definition Schroeder cited, public welfare can be tied to economic, historic and stewardship considerations.

More than $1 million in state grants and donations from private individuals and organizations has been invested in preserving the Common Pasture, she noted. She argued that the breadth of financial support from all sectors underscores the importance of protecting it.

Countless hours were spent developing state approved land use management plans for the Common Pasture and in numerous studies dating back to 1933, the Common Pasture is identified as “Distinctive,” a category reserved for only 4 percent of landscapes statewide.

Preservation Mass, a state historic preservation group, identified the Common Pasture as “one of the state’s 10 most endangered historic resources.” Tampering with the economic investment made to preserve this important parcel directly impacts public welfare, Schroeder said.

Ecologically, the type of wetlands in the Common Pasture represents only two-tenths of 1 percent of land across the state, and its expanse of intact grasslands is unmatched, Schroeder said. Internationally recognized ornithologist Wayne Petersen refers to it as “the premier grassland in all of Massachusetts,” and the landscape also protects Little River headwaters, recharging the wetlands and mitigating flooding downstream.

After 55 years as an environmental advocate, for Schroeder the issue is personal and she choked up at the end of her presentation when urging the Pikuls to reconsider how their plan impacts the “irreplaceable benefit” of the Common Pasture.

But Richard Kleiman of Sage Stone, who applied for the special permit on behalf of the Pikuls, said a fondness for the Common Pasture — while understandable — was not enough to block a project that meets all standards for allowable use under the town’s zoning laws. Kleiman noted many environmentally positive aspects to alternative energy projects and pointed out that the Conservation Commission had approved the plan.

“This is not park land, it’s farm land,” he stressed.

Donna Pikul argued that the proposal will actually “save the land” in the long run. Rather than other types of development that could permanently alter the property, her plan is tied to a 20-year lease, after which the parcel can return to its original state. She disagreed with Schroeder’s comments about Little River, noting imperfections that are already gushing downstream thanks to a culvert on Hale Street.

For their part, selectmen still seemed unconvinced of the community benefit that the applicant says will come from tax dollars generated by the project. Part of the town’s special permit process requires the applicant to identify how their proposal satisfies a community need.

Kleiman insisted that the solar project would be revenue positive for the town and not the drain on services that come with other types of development. Sage Stone will work with the assessor’s office to determine property taxes and a schedule for payment, he said, but that process takes awhile.

But selectmen held fast, saying until they have a more definite understanding of the proposed tax agreement, it will be hard for them to approve the project.

“This is our bargaining chip,” said Bear.