Solar project on 28 acres of farmland on table in Easthampton 

EASTHAMPTON — A California-based solar energy company has proposed building a four-megawatt array on 28 acres of land at 50 Florence Road and is in negotiations with town officials — even as neighbors of the proposed project are expressing reservations.

Beacon Solar, a limited liability company owned by Santa Monica-based Cypress Creek Renewables, has submitted a special permit application to the city Planning Board for a solar array it says will coast about $8.4 million.

According to the company’s application, array is anticipated to create 5.53 million kilowatt hours of energy annually, enough to power 680 single-family homes per year. The energy will be sold to Eversource for use by customers in the area, according to the application.

The proposal spans two parcels of land that would be leased from property owner Bernard P. Gawle. According to Cypress Creek’s website, the company has more than 300 solar facilities across the country.

City Planner Jeffrey Bagg said the company has appeared before the Planning Board and city Conservation Commission twice each in seeking approval for the project, though neither panel has made a final decision.

“We’ve been pushing back a little bit, making sure we get the information we need,” he said.

Cypress Creek has also submitted applications to build two solar arrays in Hawley.

Solar array specifics

Cypress Creek’s application indicates that if the company receives a special permit from the board, it would take 16 to 18 months to build and install an interconnection facility. After that, the company estimates it would take 12 to 16 weeks for the solar array itself to be installed.

The company anticipates that throughout construction it would spend over $4.7 million and provide 60 “full-time equivalent” jobs.

Nicolas Galletout, project developer at Cypress Creek, said this number is an estimate based on previous projects the company has finished across the state and country. He said the total spending number encompasses money spent locally on parts, food service and other goods.

Bagg said that he was skeptical of these numbers, as there is no guarantee that those jobs would stay in the city after the array is constructed.

“The jobs, I don’t agree with. They’re temporary jobs so they don’t qualify as creating new jobs in Easthampton,” he said.

Galletout agreed that the construction jobs were for construction and installation only. He said the facility was a “low-impact development,” meaning that once finished, the array would need only maintenance workers.

As for maintenance jobs, Galletout was uncertain who Cypress Creek would employ.

“Whether it will be a Cypress employee or a local employee, I don’t know,” Galletout said.

The array is expected to operate for 25-40 years after installation, with minimal impact on city services, Galletout said. Since it is a “passive development,” he said, the company and the town are negotiating what is known as payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT).

According to Bagg, instead of paying property taxes on the facility like other businesses, the company and city would agree on the value of the array, and then negotiate set payments to the city for the lifetime of the project.

The amount of money paid to the city would be based on the valuation of comparable projects and solar in the past, Bagg said. And since the land is designated for agricultural use, it is currently “tax-neutral” for the city, he said.

“That’s beneficial to the city because it could be budgeted and it could be consistent,” Bagg said in regard to PILOT.

Galletout said that the company had met with both the city assessor and the mayor’s office, and that they were “mid-stage” in the negotiations.

The site will also include lithium-ion battery storage, which would store excess energy created by sunlight in the middle of the day and then push it onto the power grid when it is needed most at night, Galletout said.

The application also states that the array would provide about $1 million in economic value to the state and Easthampton by offsetting 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, helping “advance the renewable energy and efficiency goals” of the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program.

Galletout also said Eversource customers would have the opportunity to opt in to using energy created from the solar array at a discounted rate. The array, he said, would service not only Easthampton but other surrounding communities, though he is unsure whether city residents would be given preference.

“We hope that residents in Easthampton would be the first in line to subscribe,” he said.

Community response

Questions raised by neighbors about conservation concerns due to nearby wetlands along with aesthetic worries are being carefully weighed by both the Planning Board and the Conservation Commission, Bagg said.

He said some residents have voiced concerns that the grading of the project might redirect stormwater into wetlands near their homes, affecting the ecosystem through flooding.

Galletout said the company is listening to environmental and visual concerns from residents. Galletout said the company had submitted a “stormwater pollution prevention plan” to the Planning Board which would be reviewed by both independent and city engineers.

This plan would make sure nearby protected wetlands would not be disturbed, he said.

Galletout also said the company has altered its plans to include more weeping willow trees in an effort to mitigate any problems residents might have with the view.

“We really want to be a good neighbor and listen to the community where we develop,” Galletout said.

Alex Paulsen, 56, of 8 Maxine Circle, has a home abutting the proposed project and said he and his wife have “mixed emotions” about the proposed solar array. Renewable energy needed to be pursued with great haste in the face of climate change, he said, but they the proposal could hurt their property value due to the loss of scenery.

“If we keep delaying alternative energy and say ‘not in my backyard’, I mean, we can’t do that,” he said. “We gotta do it or else our kids are all going to die.”

“I can see both the good and the bad of it,” he said.

And if the project were to interfere with wetlands, Paulsen said he was confident the city would not allow the array to be built.

Corey Plucker, 34, and Katie Plucker, 31, both live on land abutting the proposal and say that they would rather see the city use commercial land to generate sustainable power, rather than farmland.

“I would rather see them buy the exact amount of acreage that they’re using over here on Route 10,” Corey said.

“It seems like using residential lands for an industrial power plant seems a little bit inappropriate,” he added.

Both Corey and Katie said they were in favor of solar energy, and that they were trying hard to not base their feelings of the proposal off of the project from being in their backyard.

“I can address visual impact, but I think that for me, I wish the town were farther along in … being able to generate its own power,” he said.

Overall, Bagg said he anticipates the process will several more meetings of the Planning Board and Conservation Commission before a decision is made. Both panels, he said, would need to give approval before the array can be built.

He said it took seven meetings of the Planning Board to approve the two solar array projects on Park Street last fall. The current meetings, he said, give Cypress Creek an opportunity to hear from residents and come back with detailed plans addressing concerns.

The next Planning Board meeting is scheduled for Aug. 20, Bagg said.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.

Author: Going Green

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