Great Barrington farmer, school now happy with planned solar array

Bob Coons, far left, talks to Planning Board members at a site visit for an 11-acre commercial solar array on farmland he is leasing to a solar developer. The site of the array is in the distance across the field - to the rear left is the early childhood complex at the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School.

GREAT BARRINGTON - Plans for a commercial solar array on a patch of farmland sailed through a cheerful permit hearing Thursday after months of difficulty.

Kearsarge Energy, a Watertown-based solar developer got unanimous town Planning Board approval for the 11-acre ground-mounted panels for power it will sell at a discount to several municipalities in central Massachusetts through a state program.

The array will be one of the largest in South Berkshire County, and will take about four to six months to complete, with a start date of September or October, according to Kearsarge president Andrew Bernstein.

Bob Coons, who is struggling to keep his dairy farm and nearly 200 acres of farmland, had arranged last year to lease 20-acres of his most unproductive land to the company.

But Coons and Kearsarge ran up against the town's thin solar bylaws, which gave the town building inspector no choice but to deny a permit to build a commercial installation on what is zoned as residential/agricultural land.

Kearsarge appealed with the town Zoning Board of Appeals, lost, then took the matter to state Land Court. But that case will likely be dismissed when all is said and done, since voters at the May annual Town Meeting approved the town's new bylaws that more clearly define and regulate every kind of solar project. This project complies with those, and Kearsarge will officially get its green light when the Attorney General's Office approves them.

But Kearsarge also found itself untangling another problem: the proximity of the array to the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School's nursery and kindergarten complex.

In the end, the school, Kearsarge and Coons worked together and will continue throughout, down to details like adjusting construction schedules to children's nap times.

Everyone appeared happy with the arrangement, and supportive of each other.

"We are in 100 percent support of the Coons family," said Chris Lee, president of Steiner's board of trustees. "We understand that change is inevitable ... we take our relationship with our neighbors very seriously. This is an incredible opportunity for the community and school families to learn about what it actually takes to make energy."

Some Steiner School board members and parents had worried the array would harm a major asset that is key to the school's early childhood program, and which brings families here from urban areas: the pastoral environment.

To solve that, Kearsarge and the school are working on natural screening, and that is one condition of the permit.

And the school, with financial help from Kearsarge, plans to create an environmental education program, using the array as its core.

The one project detail that got the most attention Thursday was noise. Several board members expressed concern, and Michael Lotti of Industria Engineering, the solar contractor, acknowledged the issue.

"It's a pinging noise that doesn't sound great," he said. "But [the work] moves pretty quickly," he added of what will be about two to four weeks of pounding supports into the ground.

Malcolm Fick, a board member who acted as chairman for Brandee Nelson — who had to recuse herself — mentioned the steady stream of noise complaints received by the town last year over construction of a solar installation in Housatonic.

But Lotti said while there is a screw method that is quieter, it is also more expensive, and still involves construction noise. He said he's had very few or no complaints on other projects using the pounding method.

"We did one next to an abbey," he said.

And as it almost always does at Town Hall, the conversation turned to money.

Bernstein explained that while he has not yet hammered out an agreement with the town, he estimates the company will pay $25,000 per year for each year of the 20-year life of the project, which will see the installation completely removed at the end. He said the company would also have a to pay a penalty tax for pulling the land out of agricultural use, since farmland is taxed at a lower rate.

From the beginning, the project revealed conflicts that emerge amid change in a rural area — the tightrope walk with preservation of the landscape on one side, and development on the other — even for renewable energy.

Holly Hamer, who lives around the corner from Coons, said she did not want to see the panels from the road. This brought a prickly response from board member Jonathan Hankin, who lives within eyeshot of the new project.

"I actually look at my solar panels every day and I don't find them offensive," he said, adding that there was no sense living in a "make-believe world."

And Joseph Burke, who also lives nearby, spoke to the unique considerations of such a project.

"Allowing projects like this will allow open space to be preserved longer," he said. "This will keep the rest of [Coons'] open spaces open for a long time. This is what makes the Berkshires beautiful."

Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871