BELCHERTOWN — Two companies with plans to build large commercial solar arrays on private land in Belchertown are facing opposition from a community group that does not want to see forestland cleared to make room for green energy.
Syncarpha Community Solar of New York and BlueWave Solar of Boston have each proposed building approximately 50-acre solar arrays near the intersection of Gulf Road and North Street on parcels of land owned by W.D. Cowls Inc.
“Sustainable energy sourcing is critical,” said Cinda Jones, president of Cowls Inc., whose family owns the land to be leased to the solar companies. “The world is running on a fuel that is finite and expensive and dirty. We have to change the way we fuel our lives.”
In May, Town Meeting voters approved an article authorizing the Select Board to enter into a 25-year “payment in lieu of taxes” (PILOT) agreement with Syncarpha Solar if approved by other town boards. The Citizens for Responsible Land Use recently circulated a petition and gathered 259 signatures calling for the reversal of the PILOT agreement.
“The thing passed but there was no debate and no real understanding what was going on,” said Ken Elstein, a former Select Board member and treasurer for the Citizens for Responsible Land Use. “It’s cutting the trees in order to save the forest.”
However, Select Board Chairman Nicholas O’Connor said the reversal will have no effect on whether the project moves forward.
“We can’t stop a project if we don’t want it,” O’Connor said because the project is being pursued by a private company on private land.
He estimates that over a 20-year period, the solar arrays would generate about $1.6 million for the town in PILOT payments. A special Town Meeting on Aug. 20, initiated by the petition to vote on the reversal of the PILOT agreement, will only cause the town to miss out on potential revenue, O’Connor said.
“I would hate to see the project move forward and everything is legal and Belchertown doesn’t benefit,” he said. “And that’s all that reversal would do.”
In an open letter to the Planning Board and Conservation Commission, the citizens group says a total of 31,924 panels surrounded by chain-link fence would be installed on either side of Gulf Road if the projects are completed. They draw parallels to what they see as Boston’s unjust creation of the Quabbin Reservoir, Springfield’s taking of Knight’s Pond, and the notorious 876-acre Belchertown State School.
“Solar rights now, are what water rights were then,” the letter read. “We need to be more proactive this time and have a comprehensive plan for solar power controlled by and for Belchertown.”
In a flier sent out to Belchertown residents, the group calls for an assessment of the potential impacts of the solar fields by a professional biologist. The group intends to pay for this with funds raised by their near 100 members. The flier also claims that the Aug. 20 meeting could be the town’s only chance to stop the arrays.
O’Connor explained that the Planning Board, Conservation Commission and Board of Health have ultimate authority to determine whether the project meets all the town’s zoning, health and wetlands bylaws to move forward.
According to O’Connor, each project would cover about 50 acres of land, and require some land to be clear-cut. The town has not yet received a project application from Syncarpha. It has received an application from BlueWave, which will be reviewed in a Planning Board public hearing on Aug. 14.
Additionally, the petition by the Citizens for Responsible Land Use calls for the creation of two new solar zoning bylaws. The first would restrict any solar developments that would clear any more than four acres of land, and the second would establish a minimum distance between large-scale commercial solar arrays. However, these will not be addressed at the Aug. 20 meeting.
Cowls Inc. president Jones said the petition calls for “dramatic and illegal changes” to the town’s zoning bylaws that will deprive residents of over a million dollars in revenue.
The solar arrays would prevent housing subdivisions from being built on the property for up to 35 years, she said.
“We urge the Select Board to seek Town Counsel’s advice about the wisdom and legality of holding a special town meeting in order to change zoning to block solar projects where subdivisions are allowed,” Jones wrote in a letter to the Select Board.
The citizens group disputes that the solar project would prevent additional development.
“By converting the zoning from forested land under Chapter 61 to what is essentially industrial, we open a gateway for further development,” the group stated in its letter.
Cowls is the largest private landowner in the state. The company owns thousands of acres of forests throughout western Massachusetts, including 1,364 acres of forestland in Belchertown, according to Jones.
“In these challenging economic times, solar is a godsend to towns and landowners with property near substations and three-phase power,” Jones said. “Solar is a temporary short term use that doesn’t change the topography of the land or make it impermeable. Sure, it means Cowls will cut down trees, but cutting and growing trees is what we do for a living.”
In her letter to the Select Board, Jones describes herself as “one of the Commonwealth’s leading conservationists” and a “staunch proponent of getting off foreign dirty power sources.”
“The irony of all this is all of us are strong supporters of fighting climate change,” Elstein said. “We’re all environmentalists.”
Residents and neighbors opposed to the solar installations cite environmental concerns, quality of life and preserving of the area’s “viewsheds” as primary reasons. Clearing trees could cause issues with stormwater runoff, increase soil erosion, disrupt wildlife and potentially cause groundwater contamination, they say, as the projects could involve stream crossings.
“This is certainly not the only thing we are doing in order to try to work against this project,” Elstein said, adding the group is working to analyze impacts on real estate values, water quality and wildlife to better make its case.
A third substantial project by Borregos Solar is proposed on privately owned land at 400 Franklin St. The town has received an application for the project, which will also be reviewed at the Aug. 14 meeting, O’Connor said. At least three more smaller projects have been proposed by Citrane Power on town-owned land, including the capped landfill on Hamilton Street.
The solar projects, Jones said, call for cutting less than 20 percent of the forestland, while the company’s typical tree harvest cuts 30 to 70 percent.
“The amount of trees we’re cutting is seriously negligible when you consider Belchertown is two-thirds trees, and how much land Cowls will continue to forest,” she said.
Guidelines on how to regulate solar installations in town were ratified by Town Meeting in 2012 after public input and discussion, O’Connor said.
“People need to educate themselves and go to Town Meeting and go to public hearings,” O’Connor said. “This has all been done in the open, in the public, in open meeting, in the press, all kinds of stuff.”
A July 10 Conservation Commission meeting was moved to the Town Hall auditorium to accommodate all the attendees. There, Matthew Parlon, a project development analyst with BlueWave Solar, explained some of the project specifications. The project would be set about 700 feet back from the street, with an access road off Gulf Road.
“I can assure you, people in this town will look carefully at any warrant article that has the word PILOT on it,” Elstein said.
Both sides agree that a rush to take advantage of the state’s Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target Program, otherwise known as SMART, has put pressure on developers to nail down projects quickly.
“It’s not cost-effective to build without the state subsidy,” O’Connor said. “That’s why there’s this push.”
Currently, three commercial solar fields operate in Belchertown, all approved without significant objection, O’Connor said.
On Aug. 14, the Planning Board will host a public hearing on the BlueWave plans at 7 p.m. in the Town Hall. On Aug. 20, the special Town Meeting will convene at 7 at the high school.
Sarah Robertson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.