Wilbraham Planning Board approves solar project extension

May 31, 2023 | Sarah Heinonen

WILBRAHAM — A public hearing was conducted by the Wilbraham Planning Board on May 24 to discuss changes requested to the special permit for the yet-to-be-built solar field at 285 Three Rivers Rd.

Chair John McCloskey recused himself, as he is an abutter of the project. Vice Chair Jim Rooney explained to those present that the board had decided to conduct a public hearing on the matter because of its controversial nature and location near wetlands.

Planning Board member Tracey Plantier ran through the history of the project, which first begin with an August 2018 application. After three public hearings and conditions issued by the Conservation Commission, the Planning Board denied the special permit. Amp Solar Group filed suit and the Land Court ordered the denial reversed, which was done in June 2021.

Lawrence Cook, senior project manager for Amp Solar Group, requested an extension to the deadline and changes to the site plan to include new drainage infrastructure. Rooney told the residents in the room that the hearing’s purpose was not to relitigate the Land Court decision but to ask questions about the proposed changes.

Cook explained that National Grid had sent them a force majeure notice in January. Force majeure is a legal term that means unforeseeable circumstances prevent a contract from being fulfilled. In this case, Cook said National Grid was having supply chain issues in procuring pad mounted equipment, which was a condition of the special permit. While pad mounted equipment has a much longer lead time than the pole mounted equivalent, Amp Solar was told there were further complications. He said that National Grid was expected to begin construction in July.

In addition to the supply chain issues, Cook said that because of the gap between the project’s original planned timeframe and when the special permit was granted after the Land Court decision, the intended power inverter was no longer available and changes to that equipment had to be made, lengthening the project’s timeline.

Cook emphasized that Amp Solar Group had made good faith efforts to move forward with the project in a timely manner.

Cook then addressed changes to the site plan. National Grid required the pad site to be rotated 90 degrees and closer to Three Rivers Road. Two cabinets would be on the pad with equipment to change the energy generated from the solar panels into electricity that the power grid can use. The pad would be surrounded by safety bollards and screened by shrubbery or a fence.

Other changes are focused on drainage. A 2-foot deep, V-shaped trench, lined with fabric and stone, would run alongside part of the access road. A culvert would also run under the access road to route the water.

While Cook said DPW Director Tonya Capparello was satisfied with his responses to her comments, Planning Director Michelle Buck told the Planning Board that she wants a written response. The board instructed Cook to create a point-by-point response to Capparello’s comments.

Some residents asked questions about the planned work, but others took the opportunity to ask about ways to prevent the project from proceeding. Resident Paul Wollett asked if the Planning Board can deny the extension as a backdoor way to deny the project.

Resident Allen Shaw said that a moose and bear have moved into the area and asked if the wildlife could be “a blessing in disguise,” forcing a stop to the project. Plantier told him the Conservation Commission had already granted the requested extension.

Town Counsel Brian Winner explained that because the extension was a modification of the special permit, the legal rules prohibiting arbitrary and capricious denial are in effect. In other words, the denial would have to be based in fact and on the town’s bylaws.

Resident Paul Kszepka asked that the area where equipment is set before installation be moved away from the northwest corner of the site because it is near his home. Their “lives are being ruined,” and he would like to reduce their “suffering,” Kszepka said. Cook said he would work with the contractor to find another location.

Cook suggested walking the site with Kszepka if it would put his mind at ease regarding the 100-foot buffer zone between the resident’s property line and area in which the company is clearing trees.

“I challenge you guys to show some nerve and say, ‘You guys didn’t meet the deadline,’” a Hemingway Road resident said, addressing the Planning Board.

Another Hemingway Road resident asked if Amp Solar Group had “bought off someone in Boston” to override the Planning Board’s decision. When the Ford told her that was not the case, she asked if they had “bought off the town.”

Plantier said that the state has put incentives in place that are advantageous to developers as part of their efforts to reach statewide sustainable energy goals. “They got a lot of things wrong,” she said.

The resident then addressed Cook. “How do you sleep at night?” she asked him.

A resident said she was concerned about metals from the solar panels leaching into her well water. Cook offered to do a baseline well water test and another after the site is operating. She said that the damage would already be done.

After Plantier asked about continuing the meeting, Winner explained the extension would not be automatically approved or denied while the issue was under the consideration of the board. Cook asked that the extension be decided that night because the cost of storing materials in a warehouse is expensive.

The board voted 4-1, with Rooney dissenting, to approve the extension but continued the site plan changes to the June 2 meeting to allow Cook to present a written response to Capparello’s comments.

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