Churchill Street solar array permitted despite significant opposition from abutters


PITTSFIELD — After two meetings and a site visit last week, the Zoning Board of Appeals on Wednesday approved a 2.25-megawatt solar power facility on Churchill Street, despite opposition from several neighbors.

The facility will be constructed in smaller arrays spread over five large home lots, with groups of panels producing about 449 kilowatts of power on each lot.

The vote was not unanimous, with Chairman Albert A. Ingegni III, John J. Fitzgerald, Esther Bolen and Thomas Goggins in favor and Miriam Maduro opposed.

"I'm not convinced this won't be detrimental to the neighborhood," Maduro said, echoing the concerns expressed by several residents of the Churchill Street-Peck's Road neighborhood, which is near the Lanesborough line and Onota Lake.

"I don't believe this neighborhood is the place for this type of enterprise," Maduro said.

Those neighbors speaking against the power generation project have argued that it is a large-scale commercial venture that would negatively affect their "pristine" area of wooded parcels and fields located close to the lake.

However, prior to the vote, Ingegni read from state legislation pertaining to the siting of solar power facilities, saying they could only be denied to "protect the health, safety and welfare" of an area.

Maduro argued that the "character of the neighborhood" also could be considered, which is a similar argument used by opponents of another solar power generation array that was earlier approved by the ZBA for a parcel south of the one under consideration on Wednesday.

That project, which also was approved with Maduro opposed, has since been appealed to Massachusetts Land Court by several residents of that area.

The development granted a special permit at the meeting was proposed for four large former home lots owned by Phillip Massary and Central Berkshire Land Development LLC, and a fifth lot owned by Michael Bianco Landscaping. The lots are part of a 40-acre parcel east of Churchill Street that once was considered part of a multi-lot subdivision.

The landowners said in the permit application that they have an agreement with Heliovaas of Springfield to erect a solar array to produce electric power, to be fed into the Eversource power grid.

Brent White, of White Engineering Inc., and Raipher Pellegrino, of Heliovaas, the Springfield-based solar development firm that will construct and own the arrays, spoke in favor of the project and addressed concerns expressed by neighbors.

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Those included screening of the panels from the surrounding properties, noise from cooling fans in the facilities, and whether a "stump dump" operated in the past on part of the site and other material would be cleaned up as part of the development.

White said the developers "have every incentive" to clean up the stumps and other material because the city Conservation Commission could block any building or other permits until the areas are restored or cleaned up.

He and Pellegrino said they have agreed to suggestions for screening put forth by neighbors and had hired an expert to propose screening plans, which they said were added to the project design.

While the site is about 40 acres, White said the solar panels would only cover about 10 to 12 acres, and the arrays would be enclosed in 8-foot chainlink fencing.

As for noise, Pellegrino and another company employee said the sound would be less than a home air conditioner would produce and could not be heard beyond about 15 feet. White said the nearest home is about 400 feet from any site, and the next after than 1,000 or more feet away.

The developers also said there is no safety concern known to be associated with solar power generation, in answer to a concern raised.

Neighbor Raymond Jones said the proposed escrow account for dismantling the project after its 20-plus-year life span would total only $5,000 after 20 years, which he said could not guarantee restoration of the site if that were required.

Pellegrino said the scrap value of the panels typically far exceeds the cost of dismantling them, with the escrow designed to cover only the labor costs of removing the facility.

Nevertheless, ZBA member Fitzgerald proposed as a permit condition that an estimate be obtained to cover the entire cost of removing the panels, and he proposed a natural screening plan that used "the best possible screening," based on the conditions, and that the screening be maintained over the life of the project. That could extend well past 20 years, the developers said.

Those conditions were adopted as part of the special permit.

Jones and other neighbors argued that, despite the screening efforts, the panels would be visible at certain times of the year. He added that from his property, which is higher than the road, screening will prove impossible.

The opponents also contended that such a project should not be allowed in what has been a scenic residential area. "This is destroying the [natural] amenities that make this area special," Jones said.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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