NORTON — The controversial and expansive solar power farm earmarked for a cranberry bog off Bay Road is not going away, despite continued strong opposition from neighbors.
Planning board members for a second time have decided against the project, even though developers submitted a reduced scale plan for the proposed site, the 63-acre Fairland Farm.
But the company behind the solar farm proposal, NextSun Energy of Colorado, is again appealing the planning board’s decision to the courts.
Board members have voted 5 to 1, with member Julie Oakley dissenting, to grant a site plan, with numerous conditions, but did not approve a special permit.
The special permit would allow the solar farm to be put in a flood plain district. Four board members voted in favor and two were opposed (Oakley and Kevin O’Neil), but five votes are needed for a special permit.
NextSun had the option of appealing and did so.
“It is my understanding the project cannot move forward without the special permit,” said Planning and Economic Development Director Paul DiGiuseppe.
In April, the planning board rejected the initial application from NextSun, agreeing with residents the plan would be detrimental to the area. NextSun Energy appealed to state Land Court, which sent the application back to the town to reconsider.
The company reduced the scope of the project from about 24,000 solar panels to 10,540 on roughly 23 acres of the property near Fairlee Lane. It would still by far be the largest solar farm in town.
A local group calling itself Residents for Responsible Solar Energy continue to vehemently oppose the plans.
“We are in the middle of a lawsuit regarding the proposed solar project in Norton,” spokeswoman Kelly Gallagher said. “The matter is currently before the court and we look forward to a resolution.”
Gallagher stressed “our neighborhood group is for solar development and we are not against solar development over cranberries. We are open to this new dual-use concept over cranberry bogs, however it first must be studied in order to determine its impact.”
The Norton project’s impact hasn’t been studied enough, residents maintain.
“We are opposing this project because of site-specific issues that cause concern for our health, safety and welfare,” Gallagher said. “The proposed project is not a right fit for the proposed area.”
Residents also contend any revenue the town would receive from the project would be significantly reduced by its legal fees and reduction in homeowners’ property values.
“It’s disheartening and concerning that the town is not protecting its citizens’ best interests,” neighbor Deborah Knopf said.
Dozens and dozens of area residents have turned out for the lengthy planning board hearings on the proposals.
“This reduced project is still massive,” Gallagher remarked at one of the last hearings.
Besides worries about loud noise being emitted from the solar farm, neighbors fear toxic metals will leach into the ground and water supply from the solar panels and an estimated 300,000 pounds of batteries.
The area is located in a well protection zone over the Canoe River Aquifer, which supplies residents’ drinking water wells.
“This is a huge risk for our town. The project will be located on top of Norton’s and other surrounding towns’ drinking water aquifer,” Knopf said, adding there are documented studies regarding toxic metals leaching into the ground and water supply from solar panels. “There should not be batteries located in wetlands.”
Bay Road resident Joseph Cogliano questioned how much it would cost the town to extend water service to the homes if their wells become polluted.
“This doesn’t belong here in a residential, farming area,” Cogliano said.
And residents worry about hazards if the solar panels and batteries catch fire. There have been such incidents.
Neighbors’ concerns also relate to the project’s impact on the rural character of the area. The residents group’s letter to state environmental officials cites the project’s potential impact, including on wildlife. The site is located in a designated Area of Critical Environmental Concern.
A Department of Environmental Protection official toured the bogs with representatives of the applicant and town. While residents, including abutters, weren’t allowed on the tour, the DEP official did meet with residents to hear their concerns.
Adam Schumaker of NextSun Energy has contended his team has worked to address concerns of residents and the town. A landscape plan was revised to further buffer homes, and the applicant has agreed to install panels to block sound and monitor abutters wells.
Planning board Chairman Steven Hornsby has said he feels the applicant has responded appropriately in many cases, but some board members, including Oren Sigal, raised many issues with the plans.
Noise generated from the solar farm was something residents and Sigal touched on frequently during the hearings.
“This is a major commercial development in the middle of a residential area,” Sigal said, contending sound should be monitored regularly.
Schumaker estimated it would take less than six months to build the solar farm, but residents have concerns with truck traffic and noise from construction.
Although residents at an April special town meeting rescinded a bylaw approved in January that allowed for solar projects on cranberry bogs, the Bay Road plans still fall under the earlier bylaw.
There have been efforts to revise the state law that allows for solar farms over cranberry bogs.
The proposed project is considered to be the first under that law involving a large cranberry bog in a residential area.
“This program was not intended for projects in residential neighborhoods or of this magnitude. It was intended to supplement and assist cranberry farmers,” Knopf, the neighbor, said. “NextSun is a Colorado solar company. They are not farmers.”
Town officials initially backed the solar project, working out an agreement with the applicant that promised the town would receive $200,000 a year for 20 years, or $4 million, payment in lieu of taxes on the solar equipment — a pact the January town meeting also supported.