Special permit decision for Pittsfield's Churchill Street solar project postponed
PITTSFIELD — Homeowners living near the site of a proposed 2.6-megawatt solar array off Churchill Street described their concerns in sometimes emotional terms during a Zoning Board of Appeals hearing Wednesday.
The project also won support from other speakers who praised the development for the green energy it would produce and because 51 of 61 acres in the parcel would be preserved in its natural state.
"This is a beautiful place," said Louise Cianflone, whose home is across Churchill Street from the project site and now is a mix of wooded areas and meadow. "All of it is going to be gone; it makes me want to cry," she said.
Susan Curro's voice wavered slightly as she told ZBA members, "We saved for a long time to buy our home 20 years ago, a home out in the country. ... Now, we are going to look out the window and it's going to be gone. Would you want to look out your window and see that?"
However, Robert Collins, owner of the abutting Blythewood Stables property, from which the project site was subdivided, said, "I would just like the committee to consider that, outside of the 10 acres that will be utilized, there will be 51 acres left as open space that will not be utilized."
Collins was one of two people at the meeting who spoke in favor of the project, praising the plan — proposed by landowner Todd Driscoll and Aegis Renewable Energy, of Waitsfield, Vt. — for its positive impact on the environment.
After hearing comments and discussing the project for nearly two hours, the ZBA voted to table action until next month, at a meeting to be scheduled after a Conservation Commission meeting on the project set for March 10.
Board members said they would like to have proposed revisions discussed concerning screening of the solar panels and details for decommissioning the project, if necessary, after the life span of the equipment written up for review by the board.
James Scalise and Robert Fournier, of SK Design Group Inc., representing the landowner and the developer, described the project and the natural and fence screening that they believe will shield nearly all of the array from neighbors.
Fournier said the solar panels would be arranged in east-west rows facing to the south. About 7.5 acres of wooded area would be cleared and the array would cover a total of 10 acres, all of which would be encircled with a chain-link fence, he said.
Regrading of the site to ensure the panels receive direct sunlight and a drainage system to prevent runoff into nearby wetlands areas would likely not involve bringing in new fill, he said. The draining system, including a catch basin, is being reviewed by the Conservation Commission, which did not raise any significant wetlands-related objections during an initial review.
The seven-foot fencing sections that will face abutters will have a green mesh and some will be atop a five-foot berm as part of an effort to shield the panels from the view of neighbors. Fournier said the intent also will be to have trees and vegetation fill in front of some sections of the fencing and over time cover the fence as well.
A 50-foot-wide wooded section would be left along Churchill Street, and the developer proposes filling in any gaps with evergreens.
Scalise said a solar array "is a very passive use" of the parcel and one that will add no permanent buildings and require little maintenance of the equipment.
He added that in researching the issue of impact on nearby property values, he found the data sparse concerning a relatively new industry but that only slight declines in value of 3 percent or less have been reported.
Neighbors questioned what would happen at the end of the lifecycle for the solar panels. Scalise said it was once common in the industry for developers to put up a bond to cover removal of the equipment, but it has been shown that, if the panels are not simply replaced with new ones, the scrap value of the equipment far exceeds the value of a typical bond.
In addition, he said, bonds of that type are sometimes difficult to access by a municipality and often expire long before the panels are no longer in use. The ZBA decided to require more in writing on how either the removal of the panels or installation of new panels would be handled.
Driscoll said that, even if the panels were removed in 20 or more years, the land would return to woods and meadow and would remain valuable for other purposes.
Scalise also produced Google aerial maps upon which the array was superimposed, as well as computer-generated views from each neighbor's yard at about 6 feet from the ground. The panels were visible in spots above the planned screening but generally blocked out by vegetation or the green fencing and/or berm.
But for the neighbors present, the issue came down to their right to expect the residential neighborhood they built homes in to remain residentially zoned.
Ralph Cianflone said he has difficulty believing a commercial project of that size is allowed in what has been a semi-rural area of Pittsfield with homes surrounded by attractive wooded areas, meadow and near Onota Lake.
Cianflone was highly critical of a 2013 change in city zoning, which he said was "the poorest [zoning revision] ever done," as it allowed public or quasi-public utilities in a residential zone with a special permit.
The solar array is the type of project allowed under the provision, if a special permit is obtained. The developer has an agreement for sale of the electricity generated to the utility Eversource, with the power to be added to the grid along Churchill Street lines, Scalise said.
"This has not taken into consideration the people who live there," Cianflone said.
He added that the panels themselves could pose a threat if youths were to gain access, since there could be the danger of burns or electric shock from the equipment.
Francis Curro and Cianflone said they would rather the parcel was developed for homes. They said the solar project should be moved to a former GE site or other location in the city, away from a scenic rural neighborhood.
Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.
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