Single vote kills Sanford Road solar in Westport

Project wins three of four votes but needed unanimous decision — Too many trees says Watterson

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 9/25/19

WESTPORT — It won the support of three out of four voting Planning Board members, but a major solar project proposed off Sanford Road went down to defeat all the same in a startling September 10 …

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Single vote kills Sanford Road solar in Westport

Project wins three of four votes but needed unanimous decision — Too many trees says Watterson


WESTPORT — It won the support of three out of four voting Planning Board members, but a major solar project proposed off Sanford Road went down to defeat all the same in a startling September 10 decision.

The action came after Watuppa Solar, which proposed a 4.2 megawatt large scale solar farm on part of 150 acres owned by the Fall River Rod and Gun Club, revealed several concessions sought by neighbors and board members over the previous two hearings.

Board member James Watterson announced part way through the meeting that he wouldn’t be supporting the project despite those concessions. He said he thinks the applicant should have put the solar panels on a part of the property that wouldn’t require cutting down 14 acres of mostly mature trees (several neighbors had complained about tree cutting at an earlier meeting).

The town bylaw allows cutting up to 16 acres of trees for solar projects, and the developer contended that these were not old-growth trees.

It would amount, he said, “just tearing down 14 acres of mature woodland and then doing our best to patch it up … Just a bad idea to put it here.”

Still, it seemed to most in the audience that the project might pass — until Town Planner James Hartnett read the rules prior to motions being made.

The Special Permit sought by the developer requires super majority approval, Mr. Hartnett said — four out of five members. But, since new member William Sheahan hadn’t been on the board for the previous two project meetings, he was ineligible — the project needed a unanimous 4 out of 4 votes.

A motion to approve a separate Low Impact Development permit (which didn’t require a super majority), did pass 3-1.

Then came the motion for the Special Permit — it too went 3-1 in favor but was short of the required super majority and the project was defeated.

If the company wishes to proceed, it will have to start over, Mr. Hartnett said after the meeting. The developer could wait two years and file anew, or could ask the board for permission to reapply sooner than that. That, too, would require four positive votes but this time new member Sheahan could participate.

Or they could file an appeal,” Mr. Hartnett added.

Before the final vote, three board members spoke in favor.

Westport has realized there is a need by the town to encourage renewable energy and specifically solar energy “and so created a solar ordinance,” John Bullard said.

Later, Town Meeting voters tightened that ordinance.

“We have rules — they started with one level of strictness, then we made them stricter.”

There have been three meetings on this project, Mt. Bullard said, and, “Every time you (the developer) have presented, this development has gotten a lot better. “You have been very responsive … You increased setbacks.” That, he said, shows respect for the neighbors, the process, and the board.

Board Chairman James Whitin said, “It is the responsibility of the Planning Board to vote on this based on what the bylaw is. We don’t have the ability to say, ‘Gee, I would approve it if you had done this differently. That’s not what’s before us. What’s before us is what is presented during the hearing.”

“Town Meeting adopted this bylaw and it sets out standards,” added Robert Daylor. “You have complied with the standards,” he told the developer. A balance needs to be struck between the rights of the neighbors and the rights of the applicant — “You have done a good job of striking that balance.”

Before the first vote, Mr. Watterson said he would be voting no “because I don’t see any proper planning beforehand. If you ask me it would be simpler and cheaper” to put the panels on the north side, away from the larger trees,

Told that he should only address the motion, he replied, “I object. I don’t want to be characterized as someone who is not for development and not following the rules. I am following the rules of the Planning Board.”

Expanded buffer zone

At the outset of discussion, Ben Aparo, a spokesman for the developer said that, since the first two meetings, the project had received a positive vote from the Conservation Commission.

And “one of the major things we did as listen to the board and abutters” and agreed to increase setback buffers along the east and west sides from the required 100 feet to 150 feet.

They had managed that, he said, by shifting the project to the north.

Engineer Denise Cameron described redesign work done to address drainage, essentially directing more of the water to the north across Rod and Gun Club land and toward South Watuppa Pond.

The impact of runoff on neighboring residential lots from a theoretical 100-year storm would be reduced, she said, from what now exists.

Mr. Bullard said that, since warming air holds warm water, what was once the 100-year storm is now the 50-year storm or even the 25-year storm. “We will get more extreme flood events — which is why renewable energy is a good thing to have — end of editorial.”

Several Plymouth Boulevard and Benoit Street neighbors remained unconvinced by the developer’s assurances.

“There is no need for it back there,” one said. “It’s going to disrupt everything. They can give us numbers left and right but when it rains now we have a problem.. You don’t need to be cutting down forests to do solar things.”

When water fills the two proposed retention basins, asked Robert Cunha, “How long will it stay there. We’re all worried about Triple E.”

Ms. Cameron said both basins have drains at the bottom and are designed to drain in a matter of hours once the rain has stopped.

More solar news

Earlier in the meeting, the board voted to accept a developer’s request to continue Borrego Solar’s haring on a plan to build an even bigger 8 megawatt solar farm at 573 and 667 Sodom Road. The hearing will resume on October 8.

“As a result of feedback we are making significant changes,” the developer said.

Mr. Watterson’s attempt to make his feelings known about the site was overruled by the chairman.

“If we open the hearing to discussion we are not continuing it,” Mr. Whitin said.

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