ADAMS -- The developer of a proposed solar project on East Road in Adams fears that the planning board is purposely delaying approval of the by-right project in an effort to delay or even kill the effort.
It took the same board two months to approve a similar size solar project less than a mile down the road. The board took the application for this project in March and still hasn't brought it up for a vote.
"This started in March, and we still haven't had any substantive discussion yet," said Seth Ginsberg, project manager for Apis Energy Group. "It feels like they're trying to play a waiting game, and if it goes on too long, the [federal and state solar incentive and funding] programs can change."
But the board doesn't seem to have much choice, according to both the town's attorney and an attorney representing Apis Energy.
State law mandates that solar energy projects are "by-right," meaning that aside from any threats to public health and safety, they must be approved. All the planning board can do is set reasonable conditions to mitigate any neighborhood issues.
"I get that the neighbors are concerned, but [the planning board] has a job to do and a set of rules to follow," Ginsberg said. "Just give us the conditions and the opportunity to meet them."
Part of the problem is that two of the five planning board members have recused themselves from action on the proposal because they own land abutting the project property. The board legally has to have three members in attendance to reach a quorum and conduct business.
One of the board members, Mike O'Brien, said he was stranded out of state due to a family illness, thus missing two meetings and delaying any board action for two months. In all, four meetings could not be convened because of a lack of quorum on March 25, April 22, May 13 and June 24.
It was unclear who had missed the other two meetings.
The $4.5 million project, with roughly 6,000 solar panels installed on about 10 acres, would have a 1.5 megawatt capacity. Apis Energy has already invested about $100,000 in engineering and design work on the project, Ginsberg said.
"We had hoped to be out of the planning board and approved by now," he said. "At this point it's hurry up and wait. We'll provide them with anything they need. We've been very forthcoming. That's why it's so frustrating."
The project boundary was originally planned for 50 feet behind the homes that line East Road on property owned by Jeff and Carrie Loholdt. The neighbors, which have pitched an energetic opposition to the project, expressed concerns with the proximity. So Apis Energy agreed to move the boundary to 100 feet from the homes.
Ginsberg said he has been in discussion with the fire district in Adams to provide them with power at a discounted price.
Meanwhile, the neighbors circulated a petition against the proposal, and between 30 and 50 have been attending the planning board meetings to continue to express their opposition.
At this point, the neighbors are concerned about several issues, including:
n How the project might affect their property values (a study sought by the planning board on how property values are affected by adjacent solar installations showed mixed results);
n What the visual impact will be (Apis Energy has explained that there will be an elevated burm topped by ample vegetation to hide the installation from the neighbors down the hill).
n Whether rainwater runoff from the installation would end up flowing down the hill into their properties (Apis provided the town with stormwater runoff plans that Ginsberg said met the town's codes and would neither wind up on the neighbors' properties nor overtax the towns' storm water collection infrastructure).
But the firm has not been able to respond to these concerns at a planning board meeting because of the delays.
Ginsberg said everything went fine with the initial steps of the application process, but when it came time to meet with the planning board, progress ground to a halt.
"The town officials have been awesome," Ginsberg said. "But now everybody is hamstrung by this one board. All we've gotten are brick walls from them. But this is supposed to be allowed by statute."
Adams town administrator Jonathan Butler said the town's application process is "usually relatively prompt."
He added that Apis has been responsive in providing the town with any information it sought, and that the town public works officials have determined that the "drainage issue shouldn't be of concern."
"I encourage the planning board to move forward. It is important to reach a consensus on this," Butler said. "Constant delay is causing a further stir in the community and that's unfortunate to all parties concerned."
David Rhinemiller, chair of the Adams planning board, acknowledged the slow pace, and attributes that to the recusal of two members, making it more difficult logistically to seat a quorum for every meeting. He also maintains there has been no intentional delay of the process.
The next meeting, set for Monday evening, looks like it might have a quorum, he noted.
"[The project] could pass at that meeting, or it could be postponed if we need more information," Rhinemiller said. "Personally, I think it's a nice project and could be good for the town, but it also impacts the neighborhood and we want to be sure it doesn't impact the town's systems in a way that costs money to the town."
Ed Driscoll, Adam's town meeting moderator and former member of the select board, is one of the project's neighbors and has had an active role in opposing the project.
"Most residents believe it will devalue their property," he said.
Driscoll contends that other towns have denied similar projects despite the "by-right" designation.
"What this will do is turn a residential neighborhood into an industrial area due to a loophole in the law," he said. "I don't believe this would hold up in court."
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