Two Pittsfield solar arrays win permits, one previously rejected but downsized

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PITTSFIELD >> A downsized, previously rejected solar power facility on a parcel off Churchill Street won a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals on Wednesday, despite continued opposition from some neighbors.

The board also approved a second solar project involving the same developer on Cloverdale after a hearing that produced only a few questions from residents of the area.

Aegis Renewable Energy, of Waitsfield, Vt., submitted both solar array plans. The revised Churchill Street plan called for a 1.82-megawatt solar array on 5.7 acres of the 61-acre parcel owned by Todd Driscoll. A previous plan, rejected on a 3-2 vote of the ZBA in April, proposed a 2.6-megawatt facility covering 10 acres of the parcel.

This time, the ZBA voted 4-1, with Miriam Maduro opposed, to approve a required special permit for a quasi-public facility in a residential zone. Members noted the smaller project size, its location further back from neighbors across Church Hill Street, and additional natural vegetation, earth berm and fence screening of the site, along with the creation of eight home lots along the street facing the neighbors and a much wider minimum setback of 300 feet from the street.

However, several residents continued to oppose the project, saying a commercial facility does not belong in a residential zone and that they had invested in their properties over years believing only other home site were possible in that zone.

Ralph Cionflone, Judy Gray, Francis Curro and other residents said they believe the smaller solar project would still be partially visible and would disrupt the residential character of the neighborhood. "This doesn't belong in a residential zone," Cianflone said.

While noting that such projects are allowed in a residential area with a special permit, Cianflone, an attorney, said they also can be rejected to "protect the safety, health and welfare" of a neighborhood, which he argued would be applicable in this case.

Maduro said she was conflicted on the issue but ultimately swayed by that argument in voting against the project.

However, attorney Michael MacDonald, representing the developer and landowner, said the zoning requirements and state law designed to promote solar power facilities do not allow communities to reject a project unless there is an actual safety threat to the neighborhood, which he said is not the case in the project. Some approved solar projects, he said, are clearly visible from residential areas, while this array has been heavily screened.

MacDonald added that the rejection of the original project plan in April has been appealed to the Massachusetts Land Court, based in part upon those regulations, and the appeal would continue if the ZBA rejected the revised solar plan. However, that appeal would automatically "go away" with approval of the second proposal, he said.

Several citizens spoke in favor of the project, including Robert Collins, owner of Blythewood Stables on Churchill Street, who sold the 61-acre parcel to Driscoll; area resident George Haddad, and Jon Pickwell, chairman of the Blythewood Drive Homeowners Association, who said the organization fears development of the property for homes would have a negative impact on water quality in nearby Onota Lake.

The developers plan a Community Shared Solar project, which allows residents of the area and the city to receive virtual net metering electricity credits at a discount of up to 10 percent if they are customers of Eversource, which will receive the power generated over its existing grid. MacDonald said 32 residents and businesses have expressed interest in that option.

Driscoll said any Eversource customer could stabilize their electricity rates over a number of years to avoid spikes in rates such as the area experienced during the winter of 2014-15. He added that the developers are looking for many more residents or businesses to join the CSS for both the Churchill Street facility and the Cloverdale facility.

In voting to approve the Churchill Street facility, board member John Fitzgerald said the project had been "drastically reduced" and he would support it. Esther Bolen said she was in part convinced by the likely greater impact of housing on water quality of Onota Lake.

The solar array would be a "passive use," according to James Scalise, of project designers SK Design Group Inc., requiring no water and sewer hookups, no lighting and little maintenance activity at the site. The solar panels are mounted on a single pole, he said, and spaced to allow meadow grass below.

The second solar project is a 1.9-megawatt solar array on 5.7 acres of a 27.5-acre parcel off 220 Cloverdale St., owned by Peter Marzolini. That plan was approved unanimously for a special permit.

The Cloverdale Street site for the array, Scalise said, is naturally sloping to the south and will not require regrading, and it is mostly meadow and would require very little tree cutting.

Screening with evergreen trees and other vegetation would be added to screen the site from neighbors, who asked a few questions but did not raise objections at the meeting.

The 5.7-acre array site has a setback from the street of 108 feet at the closest point.

Scalise said the facility could be constructed in four to five months. Cloverdale Street runs between West Housatonic Street (Route 20) and Barker Road.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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