Westport planners pummel solar plan

Cutting 32.5 acres of trees, proximity to wetlands ‘not what Westport wants’

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 6/13/19

WESTPORT — They may or may not be able to change or stop it, but Planning Board members made their displeasure with an especially large solar project proposed off Main Road (north of Brookwood …

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Westport planners pummel solar plan

Cutting 32.5 acres of trees, proximity to wetlands ‘not what Westport wants’

Posted

WESTPORT — They may or may not be able to change or stop it, but Planning Board members made their displeasure with an especially large solar project proposed off Main Road (north of Brookwood Road) abundantly clear last week.

The large wooded property is interlaced with wetlands surrounding two critical cold water streams — Angeline Brook and an offshoot of Snell Creek — used by rare cold water brook trout among other species. Much of the land is also habitat for endangered eastern box turtles.

Josh Farkes, project developer for Borrego Solar, which he said is one of the state’s largest solar developers, said at the outset that they are working “to meet the spirit of what I think the town and residents are looking for.” He added that Borrego also intends to apply for permits for a number of additional solar projects in the coming months.

But he said that for this project they cannot work with two aspects of the new solar bylaw approved at the May Town Meeting so the company wishes to have the old rules apply. They started work on the project two years ago, he said, and submitted their application before the new rules were approved.

Specifically, the new rules limit tree cutting at 16 acres; they intend to cut 32.5 acres.

And the new rules require a 100 foot setback from wetlands; they propose 25 feet from wetlands.

“You’ve got a large area here and for the life of me I don’t understand why you need to be so close to the wetlands all around,” said board Chairman James Whitin.

Mr. Farkes said they can’t cut back much on the size of the project because of the cost of tying in to the grid.

The closest substation, he said, is 5.1 miles away and the cost of connecting at such a distance is significant.

“Tree cutting and distance to wetlands — both are functions of size and cost,” Mr. Farkes said.

“Yet you hope to come back to Westport and work again, and you say you want to work well with Westport,” Mr. Whitin said. “But Westport spoke quite clearly in the beginning of May at its annual Town Meeting … 25 feet is not working with the town.”

“It’s a real challenge developing when you are that far from a substation,” he replied, adding that in the many projects they have completed there is always give and take. “We are definitely in a difficult spot.”

“You are right, there is always give and take, but I don’t see any give,” Mr. Whitin said. “Maximizing your economic viability is not our issue, protecting Westport is.”

“It seems to me that this is a problem of your own making,” board member Robert Daylor said. “They didn’t move the substation. When you started looking at this property it was 5.1 miles and it is still 5.1 miles.

“And now you have chosen a site where you think you can hide in the woods and you don’t have any abutters so you could avoid the abutter fight, but you are 5 miles away and you’ve got all these costs — so lets clear 32 acres on a cold water stream,” Mr. Daylor said.

“Well why should we take any impacts because you chose this piece of land,” he continued. “This is a problem of your own making. It’s like the guy who kills his parents then pleads to the court, ‘Give me mercy because I’m an orphan.’

“I don’t see any redeeming features with this … It’s not a good plan,” Mr. Daylor said.

Board member John Bullard agreed.

“You said early on that you want a positive relationship with the town of Westport … You want it to be as big as it can be. It’s crass but it’s understandable. Bob is right. This is a problem of your own making.

A project spokesman was asked what they anticipate the increase to be in water temperature of runoff into those two streams.

“That’s a really tough question,” was the reply. “There really is no way to measure that.” The panels provide shade, he added. ”I’m not trying to say it mimics a tree canopy.”

“How about the rain that lands on the panels,” Mr. Whitin asked. “Those things are black, they are pointed at the sun so I can’t imagine that they are cool.”

“That’s correct, the engineer said — runoff from the panels would be warmer.”

“Angeline Brook is a very special brook,” board member David Cole said, “not only for the cold water but for water quality in general.” As he had at a previous solar hearing, Mr. Cole asked what steps are planned to replace the nitrogen sequestration that all of those cut trees have been providing.

Mr. Farkes said they have been working with Mass. Department of Fish and Wildlife on ways to protect the brooks and turtles. And he said they have met with the Buzzards Bay Coalition to discuss a set-aside of protected land that would be overseen by the Coalition.

“We’ll take a look at some of the things you have spoken about,” Mr. Farkes said. “We hear you loud and clear.”

Bob Carey, one of the landowners, said, “we started with this two years ago when the new bylaw wasn’t even on the horizon.

“The alternative in my business is building houses. If this doesn’t go through, we will come back with a conventional subdivision … For this particular site, the solar is the better way to go.”

Jay Szaro, who owns much of the property, said “the entire parcel was Szaro property. I’ve done everything I could to keep the property family owned … I have basically run out of options.

“Rather than do some sort of subdivision, I thought solar was a good way to go.”

“It hurts my heart” to hear of the plans for so much tree cutting, said audience member Constance Gee. “I wish people cared more about trees, animals and forests but I know what people care about most is money.”

The meeting was continued to August 13.

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