LEE >> Neighborhood angst has flared up over the potential environmental impact of a privately built solar energy project expected to lower municipal electric bills in Lee and Lenox.
Residents living below the south facing hillside of the proposed site — a capped landfill of paper mill waste — off Willow Hill Road fear the planned clear-cutting of trees on the slope will lead to erosion and possibly an ecological disaster.
"Why clear cut when the bank is the only thing holding back the dump," said Jim Castegnaro. "I worked in the paper mills for 28 years and I know what chemicals were used."
Lee/Lenox Building Commissioner Don Fitzgerald says he hasn't seen the final plans, but the developer is expected to ensure a landslide is avoided.
"The tree stumps will stay in place to keep the hillside from eroding," he said.
Castegnaro and about eight other homeowners expressed their concerns about the project before the Lee Conservation Commission on Wednesday night. The concerned citizens also asserted the tree cutting and other preparation work will affect wetlands, but the commission said based on their current maps, that's not the case.
Greenwood Energy Solar Holdings, an international company that has an office in Framingham, plans to lease the former landfill owned by owned Schweitzer-Mauduit International and install a 2.6 megawatt solar array.
Once the energy firm secures local and state permits, installs the panels and gets the project operational, Lee will take 80 percent of the solar power generated, Lenox the remaining 20 percent, according to municipal officials from both communities.
The joint effort replaces the towns' failed effort to develop their own, separate solar arrays to reduce their dependance on Eversource.
Lee, entirely served by Eversource, would save between $478,000 and $525,000 over the 20-year period on the electricity used to power the town's two public school buildings, water and wastewater treatment plants and other municipal facilities.
In Lenox, the wastewater treatment plant on Crystal Street in Lenox Dale and the water treatment facility at the town reservoir will yield a total savings of $131,162 during the same time period. The savings for both communities is based on last summer's projections.
The neighbors weren't opposed to the project, but felt they were kept out of the loop, never notified about the tree-cutting and other work planned for the site. The deforestation is to allow the solar panels to be installed atop the landfill to absorb the maximum amount of sunlight.
Since the project only required site plan approval from the Lee Planning Board, no notification was necessary as the project is allowed in the industrial zone, according to Fitzgerald.
"The owners of the property could cut the trees [by right] if they just wanted it for firewood — if there were no environmental issues," he noted.
However, the residents believe a brook would be impacted by the site work, and produced maps they say document the wetland issue. However, the commission said their official maps — ones used by the state — dispute that claim.
"As a commission, we looked at this and there is no wetlands within this project," said Chairwoman Kathy Arment.
The panel suggested the residents contact a wetlands expert to survey the site and present his/her findings at the commission's May 4 meeting — a suggestion that didn't sit well with Clare "Bunnie" Lahey.
"I don't understand why it's our job and not yours," she said regarding wetland determination.
Commission members said they don't have jurisdiction over the project based on the current maps.
Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233.