HATFIELD – A Boston company founded by a member of the Kennedy family is forging ahead with plans to build a large-scale solar power plant here, despite growing neighborhood opposition and a legal challenge that raises questions about whether it is allowed under the town’s zoning.
Citizens Enterprises Corp., whose president is Joseph P. Kennedy II, in September withdrew an application for site plan review for a 2-megawatt solar project that had been before the town’s Planning Board. At the time, critics of the project said they feared the company would instead apply for a building permit that would circumvent a public vetting of the project on Chestnut Street.
That scenario played out during the past week, albeit quietly. An application for a building permit was filed last week, the Gazette learned, and was granted Wednesday by Hatfield Building Inspector Stanley Sadowski to Hatfield Solar LLC, a development company owned by Citizens Enterprises.
“This is getting pushed through, in my opinion, irresponsibly,” said Stanley Pitchko Jr., one of 19 residents and abutters who filed a complaint Sept. 24 against the town and the property owner in state Land Court. The crux of the complaint is that the project is not allowed under the town’s current zoning.
“We’re angry at this point,” Pitchko said. “It’s totally disrespectful, and I feel we are all being deceived.”
Executives with Citizens Enterprises disagreed with that assessment and said Wednesday they chose to apply for a building permit when it became clear that the town’s Planning Board would not act on the site plan within the 65-day time frame outlined in the town’s bylaws.
“They continued to table it,” said Peter F. Smith, chief operating officer of Citizens Energy, of which Citizens Enterprises is a subsidiary company. “It was clear the Planning Board was not going to act.”
Shutesbury attorney Michael Pill, who is representing plaintiffs in the Land Court case, said a building permit appeal will be filed soon with the Hatfield Zoning Board of Appeals.
“This is a power plant, a major one,” Pill said. “It does not belong in a residential neighborhood.”
Pill described the lack of public review of the project as “an absolute disgrace,” and called on Citizens Enterprises to be more responsive to the neighborhood in which the project is being developed.
Citizens Enterprises is a for-profit subsidiary of the nonprofit Citizens Energy Corp., which was founded by Kennedy in 1979 and provides discount-priced heating oil to the needy in Massachusetts. Prior to seeking a building permit, company officials said they had presented their plans on three separate occasions – before the Conservation Commission and twice before the Planning Board.
“All abutters to the project were notified directly by the town of Hatfield, in advance of each meeting,” the company said in a statement provided to the Gazette. “Further, Citizens attempted to contact all abutters via phone and U.S. mail to discuss the project, and conducted one-on-one meetings with those abutters who wanted to discuss the project.”
The approximately 35-acre property at 45 Chestnut St. is owned by Szawlowski Realty Inc. The Szawlowski family also runs a potato farming operation in the region.
Shelley Szawlowski, president of the realty company and a signatory on the building permit application, declined to comment on the project when contacted Wednesday, the same day the building permit was approved. Szawlowski Realty Inc. and the town of Hatfield are defendants in the Land Court case.
“We have nothing to do with it,” Szawlowski said. “You have to talk to Citizens (Enterprises). We lease the property to them.”
In statements to the newspaper, Citizens Enterprises said the abutters in the Land Court case who are seeking to block the project from obtaining a building permit “doesn’t seem consistent with a group of people who knew nothing of the project.”
According to plans submitted to the town, the project calls for the installation of 8,276 solar panels, at a cost of $1.7 million, on the Chestnut Street parcel, which is in a rural residential zone. The plant would produce as much as 2.4 megawatts of power, according to the company.
By comparison, the project would be similar in size to the recently built 2-megawatt, 9,620-panel array on the capped Oliver Street landfill in Easthampton, which is now supplying electricity to that city.
Under state law, no zoning ordinance or bylaw can prohibit or unreasonably regulate the installation of solar energy systems or the building of structures that facilitate the collection of solar energy unless to protect the public health, safety or welfare. Smith, of Citizens Energy, said it is that law that allows the company to move forward with the solar project.
In recent years, many cities and towns have enacted local ordinances and bylaws to guide and regulate solar installations. Hatfield does not have a detailed bylaw regulating solar arrays, but the town’s bylaws do refer to “renewable or alternative energy development facilities,” and state that they are only allowed in industrial and light industrial use districts.
Pill said one option at the town’s disposal was to deny the building permit based on the local bylaw. Sadowski, the town’s building inspector, issued a building permit within a week after an application had been filed, however. He had a 30-day window to render a decision on the permit, he said.
Pitchko, one of the plaintiffs in the Land Court complaint, said he was surprised that nobody, particularly town officials, alerted anyone to the fact that a building permit application had been filed last week.
“Our leaders of the town have turned a blind eye to this,” he said. “This is all about greed. Money and greed. It has nothing to do with sustainability. This has nothing to do with being green in Massachusetts.”
Citizens Enterprises says the project is in line with the state’s commitment to increasing its renewable energy portfolio. The company currently has five similar-sized projects in construction in Massachusetts, including in Whately, Holyoke and Agawam.
“Citizens has been open and transparent about our Hatfield project since we initiated development,” Braden Houston, a project director for Citizens Energy, wrote to the Gazette in an email. “We have publicly discussed this project in open meetings in front of town boards on three separate occasions. Citizens will continue to answer questions regarding this project.”
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding