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Voters take issue with solar projects

Source: 
Daily Hampshire Gazette

For the Gazette

BELCHERTOWN — Reacting to a number of solar projects proposed in town, residents at a special Town Meeting Monday night discussed many of the issues surrounding the proposals.

Hundreds attended the meeting at the high school, which was called by a citizen petition circulated by the Belchertown Citizens for Responsible Land Use regarding three warrant articles.

By a margin of just nine votes, residents voted 162-153 not to rescind the Select Board’s authority to negotiate a “payment in lieu of taxes” (PILOT) agreement with Syncarpha Community Solar.

After much debate, neighbors made their opposition to the project known while town officials stressed the need for new sources of revenue.

“You’re already counting the money,” Belchertown resident Jim Hunt said to applause. “Some of us here don’t like this project for a lot of good reasons. We don’t want to count the money yet.”

Syncarpha Community Solar has proposed two solar arrays on six parcels of land, covering 101 acres along North Street in the Pelham Hills.

Those opposed to the PILOT agreement said they hoped a “Yes” vote would at least slow the project down, while town officials said the vote would have no effect on the project’s ability to move forward.

“It’s hard to vote against solar. It’s just one of those up-and-coming things,” said Andrew Chalfant, a 20-year-old resident studying computer science at the University of Maryland. “It feels bad.”

Resident Bryce Fifield said he voted “pro-solar” — against exiting the PILOT agreement — and was frustrated the town would hold a special Town Meeting for something it already voted on.

“It’s annoying that this can happen,” Fifield said, with his young children in tow, unable to find a baby sitter for the evening. “It makes me want to get rid of Town Meeting.”

Finance Committee Chairwoman Lynne Raymer urged residents to keep the PILOT in place, while fellow member Steven Rose warned of increasing pressure on the town to pay out post-employment benefits to public officials.

“This is going to have a direct and dramatic effect,” Rose said of the post-employment benefits problem. “This is going to have a direct impact on our budgets gradually, sort of like a cancer, every year for the next 20 years.”

Town Administrator Gary Brougham said the town is currently looking at seven proposals for solar arrays, with three already operational with their own PILOT agreements.

“The projects described tonight are not so much about being for or against solar or the PILOT agreement or lack thereof, so much as the location,” Brougham said.

Brougham said the seven megawatts of solar power from the Syncarpha arrays would provide the town $125,000 in revenue annually.

Another company, Borrego Solar Systems, does not have a PILOT agreement yet, but plans to pursue one, town officials said. Zoning amendments

Although no change to the PILOT agreement was approved, Town Meeting voted in favor of sending two proposals to the Planning Board to change zoning bylaws regarding future projects.

The Planning Board will now hold a public hearing on the bylaws that “under no circumstances” would permit solar installations if they require more than 4 acres of cleared trees or are within 2 miles of an existing or proposed solar site.

During the discussion, Brougham informed voters that W.D. Cowls Co. Inc. of Amherst last week filed subdivision plans for all its Belchertown property, effectively making the company immune to any future changes in the zoning bylaws. Several solar projects are proposed for Cowls land.

“It’s a cynical move designed to get around the will of the democratically elected officials of this town,” said Ken Elstein, a member of the Belchertown Citizens for Responsible Land Use, in an interview.

By submitting the plans, the Syncarpha and BlueWave projects among them, Cowls land is immune from any zoning bylaw changes for the next seven months.

Brougham explained that Belchertown being a “Right to Farm” community gives landowners the right to cut trees and develop alternative energy on their land. The state of Massachusetts recognizes solar energy as an agricultural function, too, he said. Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson.media36@gmail.com.

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