NORTH EASTHAM – Back in 1996, town meeting approved spending $1.9 million to buy nearly 64 acres of pitch pine forest and a large sand pit. While the vote was overwhelming in favor of the purchase, there was a lot of doubt about what the town would actually do with the land, hence the all-purpose label “for general municipal purposes.”
While various projects such as a golf course, playground, recreation area, municipal well field and sculpture garden have been proposed, only one – a mixed market and affordable housing development on 14 acres looking down on the old sand and gravel pit – has ever been completed.
Now, some of the area’s neighbors are worried that a proposal to install 10 acres of solar electric panels in the old sand pit will destroy the bucolic atmosphere and views they have come to enjoy.
They have a petitioned article on the warrant for the May 2 town meeting asking that the land use for the remaining 50 acres be restricted to open space and passive recreation.
“I always had the feeling that it was supposed to have been for open space,” said Karen Baker, one of the petitioners who purchased a home on Sandy Meadows Way several years ago.
Baker said she has been in the town for 20 years. She didn’t attend the 1996 town meeting, but she has promotional material handed out by the realtor who advertised the development as having “a gentle rolling landscape, (with) nearly 50 acres of open space nearby.”
Wednesday morning the sun beat down on the floor of what was once a sand pit that has now been taken over by heath plants like the broom crowberry, a state species of special concern. Small pitch pines sprout everywhere.
Baker and neighbor Susan Clark pointed to a 2002 town-commissioned report from Horsely & Witten Inc. that the sand plain grassland and coastal heath should be protected because they support rare species. Many already use the area for walking, biking, horseback riding and other recreational pursuits, they said.
“It is green energy, renewable energy, and it is revenue for the town,” countered Selectman Martin McDonald. “We have well over 300 acres of open space, not counting the national park, and the site is still available for recreation.”
Two, possibly three homes have a direct view into the proposed site, but the solar panels could be partially screened from sight with creative landscaping, McDonald said. Plus, 40 acres of undisturbed woods would still remain.
The town faces a $500,000 override this year and needs to find new revenue, McDonald said. While the final details are still being negotiated, McDonald said that the range of return to the town is likely to be between $60,000 and $100,000. At 1.5 megawatts, the solar installation rivals a large wind turbine. It is anticipated the solar power project would produce enough power to supply all town departments and buildings. The remainder will go to the Cape & Vineyard Electric Cooperative to divide among its 19 municipal and county members.
CVEC is covering the purchase, engineering and other costs, and is currently evaluating bids on the project which is part of a bigger initiative to install solar electric panels in landfills in eight Cape towns. Eastham’s landfill was too small to support more than a 100-kilowatt installation.
“I think this is a very good project for the town,” McDonald said.
But Clark said the sense of a quiet, undisturbed landscape would be destroyed.
“We’re just trying to save what’s left,” she wrote in an email. “When it’s gone, it’s gone.”
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