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Hopkinton council OKs zoning changes for solar energy project

HOPKINTON — Town Council members wasted no time questioning the merits of a proposed solar energy project in Hope Valley, unanimously passing three zoning amendments in rapid succession Monday.

The large solar array is to be built on vacant land at 45 Bank St.

The Planning Board endorsed the project at a public hearing on Dec. 4, and recommended that the council approve it with several conditions. The board asked that the zoning change apply only to this site and this project; that wiring would be buried underground and the lighting comply with Hopkinton’s dark sky ordinance; and that the site be surrounded by a 6-foot fence. It also recommended that the stationary photovoltaic panels be less than 12 feet high.

The project will be built by Megawatt Energy Solutions on 2½ acres of the 8-acre property. It will consist of 1,500 solar panels. They would be connected to the National Grid distribution lines and generate enough electricity to supply at least 100 Hope Valley homes.

Council Vice President Sylvia Thompson made the first motion, to change the zoning classification of the property from residential to commercial, with the restriction that the use of the land be limited to photovoltaic energy systems and no other commercial activity.

Citing the Planning Board’s recommendation, previous testimony from several consultants, and the fact that no neighboring property owner had objected to the proposal, Thompson said she believed the project would be a good fit for the town.

“It will not adversely affect the health, safety or welfare of the town. It is in the best interest of the community. The proposed change is suitable to the character of the neighborhood and is an entirely non-noxious use,” she said.

Councilor Barbara Capalbo made the second motion, to add photovoltaic energy systems to the town’s district use table.

“The use will promote an important state, local and national objective of seeking alternative energy sources that are safe for the environment and the citizens of Hopkinton,” she said. Capalbo asked that a further condition be attached to the approval, requiring that the zoning of the property revert to residential if the solar project is not built.

The third motion, made by David Husband, amended the town’s comprehensive plan and future land use map to reflect the zoning change from residential to commercial, restricting the change to photovoltaic energy systems only.

Because the solar array would be the first of its kind in Hopkinton, Tax Assessor Christine Brochu said she was unable to put a precise value on the completed project. But the town would collect considerably more taxes on the property than it does now, she said.

In 2013, the vacant land was valued at $96,100, and taxes were $1,899. Brochu told the council that when completed, the energy system would be valued at between $662,000, the preliminary figure provided by the developer, and $1 million. At the current tax rate of $19.77, it would generate between $12,433 and $18,782 in property taxes in 2014. Husband, who lives near the site, said he welcomed the solar project.

“I know that piece of property well, and it’s a wonderful use of the property,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to bother the neighbors. I’m all for it. I really am.”

After the council’s unanimous approval the developer must now go back to the planning board with a detailed site plan.

“They’ve got to go through that,” said council President Frank Landolfi. “That’s really a detailed plan, and I suspect, with all the restrictions that have been put forward on this project, it will hopefully pass. Then they’ve got to seek their state and federal permits.”

Landolfi noted that the developer was facing an early February deadline to begin construction, but the planning board was not scheduled to meet until today, so the council agreed to consider the approvals at its Jan. 6 meeting and then send it on to the planning board for final approval.

“It’s very, very tight, and all we could do was approve what we had to approve and let the chips fall where they may,” he said.

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