LENOX — A dark cloud is hovering over a $10 million, 7-megawatt commercial solar array proposed for a site off oflower Housatonic Street.
The town's Planning Board decided this week to back off considering zoning changes necessary for the project, which is proposed on a split parcel that stretches across residential and industrial zones.
Several neighbors sounded off Tuesday against the potential solar installation, which could power up to 10 percent of the town's homes and small businesses, and the board opted to hold off for now.
Syncarpha Capital, which is funding the project, has a purchase option on the 25-acre hilltop site sought at 383 Housatonic St. owned by the Peters family. The site had been on Town Hall's radar for potential purchase as open space.
To allow the project to move forward, the town was considering a new zoning bylaw designed to expand the number of potential solar sites in town while avoiding "spot zoning." But the Planning Board's decision would delay consideration by town meeting voters until November, rather than May.
"We were disappointed that the Planning Board did not take up the proposed bylaw amendment to allow solar in split lots within the industrial/commercial districts through a special permit," said Rayo Bhumgara, president of Sustainable Strategies 2050, a co-developer of the project. He told The Eagle that while the delay is a setback, the developers intend to stay the course.
"We hope the Planning Board will reconsider its decision, as it will be in the best interests of all the residents of Lenox, will meet the town's goals as a Green Community through providing opportunities for more renewable energy, and will make a contribution toward the Berkshire 100 Percent Renewables movement," he said.
The town's current zoning bylaw for ground-mounted solar installations allows them only in industrial zones. While a sliver of the Peters property is zoned industrial off Willow Creek Road, most of it is residential.
"We decided to take a look at whether and somehow we might consider altering or updating our solar bylaw," said Planning Board Chairwoman Pam Kueber, "but not specifically to allow for that project, because that would be considered spot zoning, which is unconstitutional in Massachusetts. We cannot change zoning to allow for a particular project."
But Kueber pointed out that the solar bylaw approved by the town three years ago was "pretty strict" about limiting locations for projects.
"We were extremely conservative at that time," said board member Kate McNulty-Vaughan, who crafted the existing bylaw with then-Chairman Kameron Spaulding, who remains a member.
In fact, as Land Use Director/Town Planner Gwen Miller pointed out, when the state Attorney General's Office approved the zoning rules, it described the bylaw as "restrictive." It limits large solar projects to very few areas in town, namely 232 acres in the commercial zones along Routes 7 and 20 (Pittsfield Road) by special permit and on 50 acres by right within the small industrial district in Lenox Dale.
There are also an estimated 472 acres within split-lot sites that overlap from commercial or industrial areas into residential zones.
Kueber said the Planning Board appears open to expanding solar development in commercial zones "because commercial is commercial," but the challenge is whether to allow projects at split-zone sites.
"Is that something we would have done, absent this proposal coming before us?" she asked.
McNulty-Vaughan said a provision in the proposed bylaw revision to allow solar in split lots seems inconsistent with overall zoning policy applying to such parcels.
Planning Board member Thomas Delasco agreed, voicing caution about "flirting with the spot-zoning line. This project basically brought about this discussion."
The proposed solar bylaw revision would "directly benefit" the developers of the commercial solar project, he noted.
"I got a little more uncomfortable with this whole thing," Delasco said. "If we had done it on our own, I probably wouldn't be as uncomfortable with it."
But Spaulding said he was "pretty comfortable" that the package of solar bylaw revisions would not cross the line into spot zoning.
"There's a level of discomfort on this board at moving forward with this very rapidly," Kueber said. "I don't see a huge urgency for us to attack this zoning bylaw right now."
During public comment, David Roche, of 375 Housatonic St., one of the only three residential abutters to the solar project site, along with members of his family, pointed out that "thinking of changing the ground rules, changing everything, makes a big difference. I don't think any one of us would have either purchased or built our homes if this had been in existence."
There would be major impact on property values, he added. "When you look at a solar field staring you in the face 300 feet away, I think it has a terrible negative effect," he said.
"Obviously, we're dead set against it and hope you don't consider this particular project," said Roche, who's also the Select Board chairman. "I've always been against spot zoning. We definitely oppose any industrial change to the property, and definitely not solar."
Ellen Roche, his wife, described the proposed solar project site as "one of the most beautiful farmlands in Lenox, open beautiful space we all talk about that we want in town."
Addressing the concerns of neighbors, Bhumgara, the co-developer, told The Eagle that "the benefits to the town are numerous, with almost no downside except for one abutter west of the property being able to see the installation."
He said the developers would provide extensive visual screening, and contended that two other abutters would not be able to see the solar project, based on a Planning Board site visit several weeks ago.
Bhumgara also pointed out that, as a Green Community, Lenox has built only about two megawatts of solar energy projects. "This number is extremely low, relative to solar energy development in other Green Communities, and our project (and others) would bring the town more in line with other communities that share a commitment to renewable energy," he said.
He noted that the town would gain an additional $50,000 annually for 20 years, and perhaps beyond, in taxes if the project is approved and built, while residents could save about $150,000 on utility bills annually, also for 20 years. The solar installation would provide reduced-rate electricity to as many as 500 homes and small businesses, according to the developers.
In addition, he promised to work with the town to provide parking and access through the solar property to Post Farm, a town-owned open space recreation area.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at email@example.com or 413-637-2551.