Last week, the Northampton Area School District held a groundbreaking ceremony for a solar panel system expected to provide most of the energy needs for Lehigh and Moore elementary schools.
Not so fast, Lehigh Township supervisors told district officials and the company planning to build the system off Blue Mountain Drive during a Tuesday night meeting to learn more about the project.
The information session took place after a public hearing that was cut short when MetroTek – the Kunkletown company planning to build the proposed $16-million project – withdrew its application to build a ground-mounted solar panel system and wind turbine.
The company is expected to challenge the zoning officer’s interpretation that the solar panel system constitutes a secondary principal use on the site, the first being the elementary school. Two principal uses are not allowed on the property under existing zoning, said township zoning officer Laura Harrier.
In its appeal, the company will likely argue the solar panels are an accessory to the school. It plans to withdraw the wind turbine portion of the project.
Supervisors and residents criticized the company and the school district for moving forward on the solar farm without first securing township approvals.
“What was the need to have a public groundbreaking before it was even brought to the township?” asked Supervisor Brian Moser, to applause from most in the crowd of roughly 70 residents.
MetroTek founder Reiner Jaeckle said there were several steps that had be taken to even determine if such a project was viable at the site, and that securing funding was difficult.
“Power purchase agreements are very complicated,” said Jaeckle, adding that it typically took between 12 and 14 months to get financial backing. “Without financial commitments we can’t move forward.”
In touting the benefits of the project, the district’s director of operations, Bob Yanders, pointed out the district doesn’t have to pay any of the project’s cost.
MetroTek will pay for the solar panel system, which would consist of 5,200 solar panels on 6.3 acres, surrounded by a 6-foot high fence and shrubs, using a combination of grants and loans. The district plans to sign a 20-year power purchasing agreement it estimates will save them $2 million over that time. Financially and environmentally it was a “win-win,” said Yanders.
Supervisor Chairman Darryl Snover pointed out that the loss of six acres where the project would be located – on land next to athletic fields – was more valuable than $2 million.
“I’m not impressed [considering] the loss of the land,” Snover said.
Residents said the project would take away space where kids play, and complained that the site would be an eyesore that would decrease the property values of nearby residences. The complaints echoed those heard in the Nazareth Area School District, which is in the midst of a battle to build a solar panel system of its own next to Lower Nazareth Elementary.
After more than two hours of questioning, Snover suggested residents attend an upcoming school board meeting to get more information on the project.
If all goes as the district plans, Moore and Lehigh elementary schools will have 10,000 solar panels between them.
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