HATFIELD – It was standing room only in the library at Smith Academy on Wednesday night as the Zoning Board of Appeals held a hearing on a proposed large-scale solar installation on 35 acres of land at 45 Chestnut St.
Several neighbors are appealing a building permit issued in October to Hatfield Solar LLC, a development company owned by Citizens Enterprises, to erect 8,276 solar panels that would generate 2.4 megawatts of power.
On behalf of the abutters, attorney Michael Pill of the Northampton firm Green, Miles, Lipton & Fitz-Gibbon, passed out a 57-page bound memorandum outlining his argument, based on his understanding of the town’s zoning bylaw.
Pill maintains that section 5.26 of the bylaw prevents a large-scale solar installation in a residential area, stating that it is an “energy manufacturing project” that belongs in an industrial zoning district.
Attorney Diane Tillotson of the Boston firm Hemenway & Barnes, who represented Hatfield Solar LLC and Citizens Enterprises Corp., disagreed.
“This bylaw clearly was not intended to apply to this type of project. This is an energy-generating project, not a manufacturing project,” Tillotson said.
Chairman Michael Paszek pressed Pill to explain how the project qualified as a “manufacturing project.”
“It is very clear. What is being manufactured is electricity. You are converting sunlight into electricity,” Pill said. “Whether you are burning oil or coal or using wind to power a turbine, you are manufacturing electricity.”
Speaking on behalf of Building Inspector Stanley Sadowski, Northampton attorney William O’Neil told the board that the building permit was issued based on MGL 40A Section 3, which states that 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 it is to protect the public health, safety or welfare.
Tillotson said Sadowski had acted properly in issuing the permit.
“The application for the building permit was reviewed carefully and the building inspector quite appropriately determined that the application was justified and the permit was issued,” Tillotson said.
Pill had also suggested that the building permit fee was based on a misrepresentation of the true cost of the project.
“The fee was based on the $1.7 million cost of the solar panels, not the total project, which is likely to be closer to $8 million,” Pill said. He contended that over the course of 20 years, this would cost the town close to $3 million in tax revenue.
Tillotson, however, said the fee was determined by a schedule that is readily available for review in the building inspector’s office.
“The building permit fee schedule has a category for solar arrays,” Tillotson said. “CEC calculated the fees to the penny. There was no attempt to cheat the town whatsoever.”
After hearing the attorneys spoke, zoning board members Francis Spellacy, Bryan Nicholas and Paszek opened the hearing for public comment.
Of the roughly 50 people gathered, no resident spoke in favor of the project, while several spoke against it.
Joan Cocks of Main Street, who had served on the committee to create the town’s master plan some years ago, said she was shocked when she heard where the project was going to be sited.
“I am completely confused about why it is being plunked down in a residential neighborhood,” Cocks said.
John Zakowski of Gore Avenue received applause when he said, “If we are to continue to call ourselves a community, we shouldn’t undertake projects that will negatively impact the property values of our neighbors.”
Before closing the hearing, Paszek told those gathered that the ZBA would accept written comments on the appeal until Jan 22.
“We have to decide this matter in an open meeting. We will review everything that was given to us, and we will meet here again on the 24th,” Paszek said.
Stanley Pitchko of Prospect Street, a proponent of the plan, said he hoped the ZBA would take the residents’ concerns seriously when reaching a decision.
“Tonight is evidence that people in town are very passionate about this issue,” Pitchko said.
The next meeting of the ZBA will be Jan. 24 at the library at Smith Academy at 6:30.
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