Reservations Remain about Shutesbury Road Solar Project – Amherst Indy

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Report on the Meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals, April 25, 2024

This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. It can be viewed here.

Steve Judge (Chair), Everald Henry, Craig Meadows, and David Sloviter

Staff: Rob Watchilla (liaison), Chris Brestrop (Planning Director)

24 members of the public were in attendance

Corey McCandless of PureSky and Attorney Tom Reidy of Bacon, Wilson represented the 41-acre solar installation and associated battery storage project planned for forested land off of Shutesbury Road. The project was previously discussed at the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) meeting of February 20. It was also considered by the Planning Board in October2023.

Reidy hoped that the ZBA would authorize town staff to contract with one or more peer reviewers to review the full project, including the energy storage and glare. He did not want to go into too much detail about the current plans without the input from a peer reviewer with expertise in the area. He thought that the applicant and ZBA could receive public comment at this meeting and then return on June 13 to check on the progress of the peer review. He doubted that substantive discussion would begin prior to July. 

Since the February ZBA meeting, PureSky has appeared before the Conservation Commission. The Conservation Commission requested minor changes in the submission, and the company expects to grant approval at the May 1 meeting. 

McCandless told the ZBA that PureSky has switched the battery storage provider from Powin to Canadian Solar. Massachusetts law requires that all projects over 500 kilowatts have associated energy storage. This project will provide 9.35 megawatts. McCandless said that Powin was only interested in working with projects of 100 megawatts or more. Residents had previously raised concerns about fires at Powin battery sites. When board member Everald Henry raised this point, McCandless replied that most battery fires are due to water contamination, but the Canadian Solar products “are designed not to have any sort of leakage or water contamination. […]They have a proven track record to show that that hasn’t happened, and we’re very confident that they’re safe systems.” ZBA Chair Steve Judge requested that PureSky present data on Canadian Solar’s track record when the project is next discussed. This will also be reviewed by the peer reviewer.

Other changes to the project involve altering the boundaries so that the solar panels are outside of wetland buffer zones, and the stormwater plan has been revised accordingly. The project proposes to use a screw type post to anchor the panels with minimal disturbance. Also, at the request of the fire department, the turnaround area for vehicles was moved at least 100 feet away from the battery storage equipment pad. The installation is slightly smaller than originally planned, down to 9.3 megawatts from 11; and the battery storage capacity is two megawatt hours, instead of four. 

Public Comment Plentiful
David Cameron of Fleetwood Environmental Solutions, LLC in Hadley spoke of the challenges of large projects such as the Shutesbury Road Solar on forested hillsides with nearby wetlands. He submitted a detailed report to the Conservation Commission stating that management of stormwater during the construction phase is “absolutely critical.” He stressed the importance of obtaining a competent peer review.

Eric Bachrach, an abutter to the project, commented on PureSky’s “sloppy” application process during the past five years. He cited the prevalence of more potent storms with climate change and the threat to the high water table in the area. 

Judith Eiseman of Pelham spoke of the erosion damage to her son’s property in Williamsburg due to poor stormwater management by a solar project adjacent to the Mill River. A suit was settled for $1.14 million because of the damage.

Abutter Michael Lipinsky noted that a newly delineated wetland area near the project entrance was not shown on the map displayed at the meeting. He also pointed out that the Planning Board had requested that Pure Sky document previous completed projects, but they have yet to do so. The company recently completed a project in East Brookfield, but Lipinski maintains that it is not comparable to the Shutesbury Road project because 50% of that area was open fields with no nearby abutters. 

Lenore Bryck spoke of the importance of forests to protecting ecosystems and restoring soil health. 

Scott Cashin, a biologist, spoke of a rare plant, the small whorled pagonia, being present in the area slated for construction. He added that he hadn’t seen any surveys of the project site to document the presence of rare plant and animal species, and that these surveys were needed to understand the impacts of the project and formulate mitigation.

Phil Rich, an immediate neighbor of the project, said he already had flooding in his basement from stormwater runoff and worried about worsening effects from the project. 

Abutter Jenny Kalllick noted that most of the questions posed by the Planning Board last fall have yet to be answered. She also pointed to a possible conflict of interest between Reidy and WSP, a peer review firm recently hired by the town because of their previous work together on the Sunderland Road solar project. WSP was the engineering firm for Blue Wave, the forerunner of Pure Sky.

Renee Moss, another abutter, stressed the 41-acre size of the project and noted that the total size of the parcel owned by W.D. Cowls is over 100 acres. She wanted assurance that the remaining area would be protected. Stacey McCullough, a Pelham Planning Board member, cited studies that confirm the importance of forests to the soil, groundwater, and habitats. She hoped the state could meet its climate goals without clear-cutting forests for solar.

The public will have more opportunity to comment at future meetings. The project will next be discussed at the June 6 ZBA meeting.

Board Questions Peer Review Firm Hired
Brestrup reported that WSP was the only company that responded to the town’s request for proposals (RFP) for peer review of the project. ZBA member Craig Meadows said that if his company were to receive only one response to an RFP, they would resubmit it. Planner Rob Watchilla said that the town vetted WSP and felt comfortable that it has a high level of expertise in siting and developing these types of projects. He said there will be separate peer reviews for the battery storage and solar installation and for water quality. He added that the project may be too small for some of the larger firms to bid on.

Judge requested that the Planning Department look more carefully into the possible conflict of interest between Reidy and WSP, perhaps checking with the town attorney for an opinion. However, David Sloviter felt that if the planners were comfortable with the choice, the ZBA should accept that. “I don’t see anything sinister going on here,” he said. Henry agreed.

WSP will provide peer review on solar glare and battery storage. The ZBA authorized the town to issue RFPs for study of endangered species, site design, and construction phasing, and stormwater management. 

Discussion of the application was continued to June 6.

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