May 24, 2012

Dartmouth zoning change proves an obstacle for planned solar farm

By ANIKA CLARK, 24 May 2012

DARTMOUTH – The president of a company whose planned solar farm is now barred by the town’s revised bylaw said she won’t make the same mistake twice.

“We have an interconnection with NStar. … Someday it’s either going to be a solar farm or a wind farm, that I can tell you,” Mary O’Donnell of No Fossil Fuel Dartmouth Solar told The Standard-Times Monday.

Although a June Town Meeting article could also place new restrictions on commercial wind farms, O’Donnell said “This time, for sure, I’ll be grandfathered.”

Thanks to misinformation she said she’d received from a lawyer, O’Donnell said she thought her plans for a 21,000-panel, six-megawatt solar farm off Fisher Road were grandfathered under the town’s solar bylaw. They weren’t, and now her solar farm is prohibited by an April special Town Meeting vote blocking from residential zones any ground-mounted solar projects of 250 kilowatts or more.

At the April meeting, Planning Director Donald Perry said the change would allow for a “temporary moratorium” until a revised solar bylaw could be developed for consideration at fall Town Meeting.

“Should I have grandfathered it? Absolutely,” O’Donnell told the Board of Appeals at a public hearing on the variance request Tuesday. “Does that make it any less reason why this board should not grant in this perfect location solar, sustainable renewable energy?”

The hearing drew about 30 people on both sides of the issue, including residents who live miles from the Fisher Road site.

O’Donnell described the planned solar farm as a partnership between her company, No Fossil Fuel, and Philip DeMoranville of King Fisher Corp., which owns the land. She said the project is “night and day” from the more than 9,000-panel farm under construction by ConEdison Development that has angered residents in the Hixville Road neighborhood.

Like the ConEdison farm, O’Donnell’s operation would be located in a residential zone, but the closest home is more than 700 feet away, she said.

“The closest person to this has signed a petition to say that they’re in favor,” she said. “The next one after that is 1,095 feet away.”

O’Donnell also said her project will not require noisy pile-driving because the solar panels are supported by above-ground, concrete anchors.

The farm would be “in an old gravel pit where nobody can hear it or see it,” she said.

However, a special Town Meeting voted 146-52 to bar these large projects from residential zones whether or not they’re visible or near homes, said Gloria Bancroft of Collins Corner Road in a letter she wrote to the board. Bancroft’s letter notes many other areas in town where solar farms of various sizes are still allowed. It also points out that Massachusetts law requires someone petitioning for a variance to prove a hardship owing to soil conditions, shape or topography, without the special exception causing a major detriment to the public good.

“Such hardships did not prevent this landowner from maintaining various business ventures at 756 Fisher Road over the years, ranging from cranberry bogs to gravel removal,” said Bancroft, who helped organize voters petitioning for the amendment to the bylaw. “A desire to further maximize profits does not constitute hardship.”

Along with referencing the investment already made, O’Donnell and others speaking on her behalf described how factors such as the site’s slope make it ill suited to residential use.

Under state law, “financial can be a hardship,” her attorney Edward Angley told The Standard-Times. “It just has to be caused by the fact that you’ve got a piece of land that you can’t use.”

Cara Hawes-Khalifa of Fisher Road said she’s on board with the project, noting the importance of renewable energy. Fellow Fisher Road resident Gary Francis took a different tack.

The farm will be an “eyesore” that will devalue his property, he said after the meeting, and he questioned why this use would be allowed in a residential area.

After more than 90 minutes of discussion, the Board of Appeals opted to continue the public hearing until June 19, asking to see more renderings and information about why other uses for the site wouldn’t be feasible.

O’Donnell said the company originally planned to construct wind turbines on the site but abandoned the plan to appease a neighbor.

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