NORTON — A proposed large solar power farm on a cranberry bog off Bay Road promises millions in revenue for the town, but a group of neighbors are fighting the plan.
The residents turned out by the dozens to a recent planning board hearing on NextSun Energy’s proposed solar farm near Fairlee Lane. Their chief concerns relate to the project’s impact on the rural character of the area, residents’ health and property values.
Colorado-based NextSun wants to install thousands of solar panels on about 60 acres of bogs on Fairland Farm, which is owned by Fairland Farm of North Attleboro. Principal owner Fred C. Bottomley also owns bogs in Easton, Sharon, and Dartmouth.
“A lot of us are pretty upset about the project,” Chuck Gallagher of Bay Road said. “It’s a fairly big project.”
Norton expects to receive $200,000 a year for 20 years as payments in lieu of taxes under an agreement residents supported at a January special town meeting.
Town officials say the $4 million is sorely needed.
“We are cash strapped. We are constantly on the hot seat for not doing anything creatively,” selectmen Chairman Robert Kimball said. “We think it’s the best thing to do for the town.”
But Gallagher said the impact on residents, especially those who will have the solar farm “right in our backyard,” outweighs the financial considerations of the town.
“All of us are losing money on the value of our houses,” he said.
Another Bay Road resident, Greg Shanahan, added that the property is off a scenic, historic road in a residential neighborhood.
Town Manager Michael Yunits said as the project winds its way through town boards and the permitting process, neighbors can push to receive compensation if their property loses value.
“Is it really worth it jeopardizing” residents’ health, Gallagher asked?
A father of two children, he said he worries about the health impact from the electricity generated. He also has aired concerns about lead from the solar frames polluting ground and well water. Solar panels would be 10 feet tall and the nearest home would be 200 feet away.
Abutters also worry they will be disturbed by humming noise generated by the solar farm.
“Not one long-term study has been done to protect us,” Gallagher said. “I think solar is a great idea, but not where it’s being done and the way it’s being done. It’s very unnerving this is being pushed so quickly.”
Town officials told residents they can request such studies from the planning board that the applicant would have to pay for.
As for what the residents contend is a “rush job,” Yunits said the developer is trying to get in line with other solar farms to contract with National Grid to provide electricity. NextSun felt it needed to get permitted sooner than the May annual town meeting, he said.
Also, there is a list of projects trying to get on a state solar program that provides financial incentives to farmers.
“They have a right to do it,” Kimball said of the NextSun’s plans.
Nonetheless, neighbors have formed a group called Residents for Responsible Solar Energy and have been putting up signs opposing the project.
The town removed some of the signs that were put on the town common and on town property alongside Bay Road, angering those who posted them.
“I feel as opponents of the solar panels, we were targeted,” Shanahan said.
Selectmen and Yunits said the signs aren’t allowed on town property.
“We obviously have to enforce bylaws,” Kimball said, noting the signs were given back to residents.
At the town meeting, residents spent over an hour debating two main articles on the warrant dealing with solar power before handily approving them.
The agreement with NextGen ensures a consistent revenue stream to the town in place of taxes, which can rise or fall depending on property valuation changes, Yunits said.
And it pertains to property taxes that would have been paid on the solar equipment; the land owner would still pay property taxes on the land.
Besides approving that pact, voters by a required two-thirds vote adopted a revised zoning bylaw that allows for solar farms on cranberry bogs in town.
A fairly new state law allows for such use of bogs to help struggling farmers, as cranberries can still be grown under solar panels.
Members of the board of selectmen, finance committee and planning board backed the zoning change, with the former two supporting the revenue pact.
Some at town meeting countered the property could turn into homes that tax town services, including schools.
Neighbors lamented they were caught by surprise by the plans, having little notice before a planning board public hearing on the zoning change and town meeting.
“We feel very much we were kept in the dark,” Gallagher said.
Town officials said the required time for notification was met, but Kimball acknowledged “notification probably should have gone out sooner” out of courtesy. Board members are asking the planning department to do that in the future.
The planning board public hearing has been continued to Thursday, Feb. 28 at 7:15 p.m. in the middle school auditorium, and another large crowd is expected.
“We’re very involved in this,” Gallagher said. “We’re not going away.”