$10M, 7-megawatt solar project envisioned off lower Housatonic Street in Lenox

LENOX — A regional developer and operator of large-scale commercial solar energy installations is proposing a $10 million, 7-megawatt project off lower Housatonic Street.

But first, the town will need to agree to a "complicated" zoning arrangement for the 25-acre site, part of a 48-acre parcel.

Syncarpha Capital's project could power 200 to 500 homes and small businesses through cost-saving community solar agreements available for residents to reduce their electric utility bills, project developer Carter McCann told the Planning Board.

Syncarpha has a purchase-and-sale option on the Peters family property that straddles a residential zone on Housatonic Street and an industrial zone along Willow Creek Road. The agreement is subject to town permits and National Grid interconnection approval. If the Planning Board agrees on the necessary zoning change, the proposal would require approval by two-thirds of town meeting voters and then a Zoning Board of Appeals special permit.

The town recently withdrew its application for Community Preservation Act funding to acquire the site, adjacent to the Mountain View Cemetery, for use as open space.

Over the 20-year life of the potential community project at 383 Housatonic St., utility bill savings of more than $150,000 a year would be divided among the town, local homeowners and small businesses, said Rayomand Bhumgara, president of co-developer Sustainable Strategies 2050, based in Wellesley.

"This pretty much is the perfect property for solar," he told the Planning Board, citing the close proximity to a National Grid substation and transmission lines. "A solar installation is the most low-impact development you can have," he added, since a pickup truck comes by only several times a year for preventive maintenance.

The town would get more than $50,000 a year through a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement, as well as property taxes on the 48-acre site, McCann said.

"We absolutely want to work collaboratively with the Planning Board," Bhumgara said.

He told board members there's some urgency because the project depends on a limited supply of SMART (Solar Massachusetts Renewal Target ) program credits. The program is expected to open this summer, and multiple solar developers statewide are competing on a first-come, first-served basis for National Grid's 580-megawatt allocation for credits.

"Timing is important," he said, because another SMART program might not roll out until 2020 or 2021, "so we would have to put this project on hold for years." He also cited the potential demise in several years of federal investment tax credits for solar projects approved during the Obama administration.

The potential project, to be owned and operated by Syncarpha, a private equity firm specializing in solar projects, also would need an agreement from National Grid to connect to the company's electrical grid through the adjacent substation and nearby distribution lines. The company's list of 26 completed, operating projects — 14 in Massachusetts — includes a 3-megawatt installation atop the capped former landfill in North Adams, completed in mid-2015.

Last December, the company, based in Manhattan, N.Y., completed and connected to Eversource a seven-megawatt community project in Pittsfield and Hancock at Hancock Shaker Village to serve about 450 residential customers.

The town's zoning bylaw prohibits large-scale solar projects in a residential district, said Land Use Director/Town Planner Gwen Miller.

"What you're asking us to do is to figure out a way to favor this specific project on this specific piece of land," board member Kate McNulty-Vaughan told the developers, raising the specter of potentially "problematic spot zoning."

"Clearly, it's an unfortunate site convergence," she said. "It's residential; it's got a cemetery, it's next to the town's 125-acre open space [Post Farm] parcel, it's near the landfill, so this will be a fairly complicated situation."

McNulty-Vaughan urged the board "to figure out whether there's a good solution here for both the town and for this interest that's clearly in front of us with a purchase-and-sale agreement."

Miller cautioned that "spot zoning is unconstitutional, so you definitely want to shy away from it." Spot zoning, she said, is defined as a zoning change "designed solely for the economic benefit of the owner of the property receiving special treatment and is not in accordance with a well-considered plan for the public welfare."

She suggested that the members could consider changing some language in the existing bylaw, adopting a larger zoning overlay district for solar projects, or altering and expanding the boundary of the adjacent industrial zone.

"It's up to the board's long-term vision for the town," Miller noted.

An overlay district or changing zoning for the parcel, located within a larger 48-acre lot, would look like spot zoning subject to review by town counsel, Miller said. But she noted that shifting the boundary of the industrial district likely would not be considered spot zoning.

"I'm hopeful the applicants and the board can have a productive conversation and see if there's something the board would want to change in the long term for the overall community, not just at that site," Miller said, "or if there's a more specific neighborhood change that could be considered."

Planning Board Chairwoman Pam Kueber commented during a meeting last month that "from a land-use perspective, the townspeople of Lenox are generally very much pro-renewable energy." But she cautioned that "it's no small thing to go to a town meeting with a bylaw change. The two-thirds approval is a very serious threshold to meet. ... This is a serious zoning change."

At the board's subsequent meeting Tuesday, after a site visit to the Peters property, member Kameron Spaulding advocated opening up the town's existing solar bylaw, which he called "restrictive," for a "broader discussion than this project." The next board meeting is 6 p.m. Tuesday in Town Hall.

"This isn't supposed to be easy, but at some point we have to make a tough decision," Spaulding said, emphasizing that "every member of this board would have to stand up at the town meeting and say we're all in on this change."

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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