Big solar firm eyes Egremont Country Club, stirs worry among abutters
Residents who live around the Egremont Country Club off Route 23/South Egremont Road are worried that a commercial solar farm will sully their views and an environment that includes streams and a tributary, though an installation by Cypress Creek Renewables subsidiary Horizon Solar, LLC isn't yet a done deal.
Abutters flocked to a town Conservation Commission hearing Wednesday, held to determine the scope of wetlands on the property, and spoke of potential financial disaster.
"I own the property across the street. It's been two years and I've sunk my life savings into it. It's not what I want my guests looking at," said Tom McCarthy, who owns the 13-room Windflower Inn, which looks out over the first couple of golf holes.
The company's engineering consultant came before the commission to get approval for Horizon's wetlands delineation, to find out how much of the land can be used for solar panels without running afoul of environmental regulations.
How big an installation depends on what the commission ultimately says, but Horizon is tentatively planning to build 10,000 solar panels on 32 acres of the 63-acre property, Jeffrey McKay, a spokesman for the company, said later.
McKay said the energy from the 6-megawatt installation would be purchased by National Grid, and would be enough to power between 600 and 1,000 homes and businesses in the area. He said that as the project moves forward, the company plans to hold community meetings for residents.
Built in 1940, the 63-acre Egremont Country Club property has been on the market since 2007, but not advertised until 2012, when it was listed for $2.5 million. General Manager and part-owner Frank Mazzarelli said he could not disclose the current asking price, nor whether the club had any agreements with Horizon. He said he could not speak to any timeline for the project, and added that the club will be open and operating for the entire 2019 season, and is currently accepting season passes.
McKay also would not disclose whether Horizon plans to buy or lease the property, and said construction would depend on town approvals, and not begin until after 2019. It will likely take between four to six months to build, he added.
At the hearing, a representative from the company's engineering firm said solar panels can be placed in wetlands, but that the company doesn't plan to do it.
"We're looking to identify these resource areas so that we can just avoid them," said Kelsey Shields with GEI Consultants.
Commission Chairman Jeffrey Cohen told the roughly 15 residents at the hearing that it is unlikely solar panels would be allowed in wetlands, or within the first 50 feet of buffer zone next to it.
And the commission agreed that a site visit followed by an outside expert review would be needed for what is an environmentally complex property that commission member David Shanahan said was land that's been "disturbed over and over again for decades."
Cohen also said this investigation into the wetlands is the commission's only purview here.
Commission member Andrew Mankin said the company might still be looking at other sites for their installation, and might decide not to settle on this one.
"It's important for us right now to really nail down where the wetlands are because that's what our job is to protect," he said, noting that when and if the company does develop a plan, it will have to come back to the commission for a granular analysis.
"This is the first step in many," said commission member Kate Van Olst.
But there could be many more, since Horizon may have to also go before boards in Egremont and Sheffield, since some of the property sits in those two towns, as well, though the amount of the property in Sheffield is "negligible," Mazzarelli said.
Egremont resident Sarah Blexrud said a number of people from that town are on alert.
"We'll be very active in looking at what is proposed," Blexrud said. "We have very very real personal and everyday concerns about it."
She said among these concerns are what is known as the Hubbard, or Goodale Brook, which is a tributary from Smiley's Pond, as well as historic graves.
"We understand it's a hot topic," Cohen said. "And so we'll be prepared to look at all the ramifications."
Cohen said screening with trees and new plantings would be part of the considerations.
Fears over financial fallout
Diane Sorrell lives on the town border across from the third tee. Later she said her home overlooks flat areas of the golf course, likely the "only areas that are going to be conducive to these panels."
"I love Egremont," said Sorrell, who moved here from Manhattan in 1985. "I came here because it was quiet, away from the city, a historic village — and now the thought of staring at solar panels."
Sorrell said she has already been warned about potential financial fallout.
"Where I'm situated, it will render my property absolutely worthless," she said. "I had a call from a realtor three weeks ago that said, `Diane, you better sell your house fast because it's not going to be worth a dime."
Mazzarelli said Cypress Creek found the country club listing and contacted him through a real estate broker.
In 2013 he had said that his four partners, who bought the club in 1976, wanted to sell because they were getting older. He would not comment on the club's ownership. Mazzarelli alone is listed as the current agent under the club's state filing.
Cypress Creek has developed 250 projects across the U.S., and last year alone built nearly 15 percent of "utility-scale solar installations, more than any other utility-scale developer," according to the company's website.
McKay said the company has eyed Massachusetts because it is a leader in solar energy. It also has other projects planned in the state that are "in various stages of development."
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
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