SOMERSET – Voters at next Monday’s Annual Town Meeting will be asked to approve of an article to authorize the selectmen to lease or enter into power-purchase agreements on two pieces of property for solar power generation and also will be asked to OK an article for a zoning bylaw that would put restrictions on large solar farms.
Town Administrator Dennis Luttrell also received a draft of a report on May 4 from a consultant who says the town could bring in $139,247 a year by leasing the former landfill site off Brayton Point Road for solar power generation.
Voters were leery last December of an article that was proposed at a special town meeting that would have authorized the town to lease both the landfill property and land that the town owns off of Wilbur Avenue for alternative energy use. Residents were concerned that the article would have also allowed wind power to be used at those sites. But the article that will be presented at the May 21 town meeting limits the use to solar power. The feasiblity study on renewable power generation for Somerset, that was done by Tighe and Bond, also says that the only place in town where generating power from a wind turbine would be beneficial would be in the south end of town. Mr. Luttrell said the only town property in that area where a wind turbine could be operated is at the water pollution control plant property. But he said there are so many buildings on that property that there is not enough room for a fall zone for a wind turbine, so he said it is probable that the town could not locate a wind turbine in town.
He said the study done by Tighe and Bond was based on state wind maps and not on specific visits to sites. He said the consultant also looked at Pierce Beach and the Water Department property in the north end of town but, based on state wind maps, concluded those places did not have enough wind for a turbine. He said private property owners in the south area of town could propose a wind turbine, but he does not think there are any town-owned properties where a turbine could be located. Mr. Luttrell also said that solar power seems to be the better option for the town at this time, because the up-front costs are considerably less and there are not concerns about fall zones and noise from solar panels.
“I think this report, coupled with the proposed zoning bylaw, should increase the residents’ comfort level with this proposal,” Mr. Luttrell said.
Mr. Luttrell said the town would bring in revenue through leasing the properties from lower electrical rates, as well as potential land leases and tax payments. He said that the land available for the solar panels at the Wilbur Avenue site is three times the size of the former landfill site, so he said the revenue that could be brought in from that site could be two or three times that of the money that the town makes from the former landfill land. He said that is a conservative estimate.
“That would net us $400,000 to $500,000 a year in either energy cost reduction or cash and it would be that much less the town has to raise in taxation,” Mr. Luttrell said.
The renewable energy study done on the former landfill property was part of a consent order that the town signed with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection because the town is still responsible for maintaining and monitoring the landfill land.
Selectman Patrick O’Neil said there has been interest from solar generation companies to come into town, although he could not say if they were interested in the two properties that the town is looking to put out for lease. He said that since solar panels were installed at the Highway Department this spring, electricity costs have been half what they used to be.
“Certainly, it will generate much needed revenue for the town,” Mr. O’Neil said of leasing out the two properties for solar power generation. “I also think it’s important on a grander scale to help protect the environment and help the country achieve energy independence. Somerset can do its small part.”
Mr. O’Neil said the town has to find new and creative ways to bring in revenue, like leasing property for solar power, so that it does not have to ask for as much money from taxpayers.
The bylaw proposed by the Zoning Board of Appeals would put requirements on large scale ground mounted solar panels by providing standards for placement, design, construction, operating, monitoring, removal and modification to address public safety, minimize impact on the environmental, scenic, historic and natural resources and provide adequate financial assurance for the eventual decommissioning of such installations. The proposed bylaw requires that large scale solar panel installations have side yard and rear yard setbacks from residential properties of at least 75 feet. The bylaw would also require that every abutting property be visually screened from the project through any combination of distance, plantings, existing vegetation and fencing.
Part of the land that is being proposed to be leased for solar generation is now being leased to two farmers for $2,000 a year.
Mr. Luttrell said the proposed zoning bylaw would give protection to neighbors of a solar farm and security for the site. With the state of the economy and the the estimated $250 to $275 increase for the year to the average residential taxpayer if all of the articles at town meeting are approved, Mr. Luttrell said allowing the town to lease the two properties for solar power can help taxpayers.
“Given the potential tax increase, this is a way that can lessen the burden at no cost to the town,” Mr. Luttrell said. “It’s not like we invest a lot of money.”