HOPKINTON — The issue of solar energy development, which has divided Hopkinton more deeply than any debate in recent memory, was discussed at length at a special workshop Monday evening.
Proposed by councilors Sharon Davis and Sylvia Thompson, the three-hour meeting did not resolve the town’s development pressures and budget woes, but it offered residents an opportunity to ask questions and vent their frustrations in a format which, unlike those of regular council meetings, allowed council members to respond.
The purpose, as stated on the agenda, was to discuss solar projects in the context of larger issues; “solar project reforestation and decommissioning bonding/guarantees, general economic development planning in Hopkinton, projected education costs, as well as Town and State revenues.”
As they have for several months, residents packed the council chambers, most of them eager to express their frustration over recent commercial solar projects that have been permitted in residential zones.
Town Council President Frank Landolfi warned that if the workshop degenerated into a shouting match, he would shut it down.
“I don’t want any yelling at you folks from the council and from you folks to us,” he said. “It’s to be productive, constructive and respectful. If it starts going the other way, we’ll close it down.”
Davis presented her comments and recommendations, which included improved communications with residents and more oversight of the projects’ builders to ensure they are meeting the conditions of their permits.
She also expressed doubts over whether revenues from permitting and additional taxes from solar projects would be a panacea for the town’s revenue problems.
“It’s true that the eventual results of the previous Town Council’s plans will be an increase in town revenue, once the completed projects come online, and there will also be one-time infusions of cash due to fees and permits,” she said. “But the actual cause of Hopkinton’s cash shortage remains unaddressed, and in the meantime, many needed town projects go begging.”
Thompson explained the unpredictable consequences of the Chariho schools budget, and the financial consequences to towns that experience enrollment increases, since each town’s share of the budget is based on student enrollment.
Hopkinton’s enrollment for the 2019-20 school year has increased by 24 students, which in turn will result in property tax increases.
“On every street, you’ll see new houses being built, building permits are being pulled, and a few people think that’s okay, but mathematically, it’s very expensive for us,” Thompson said. “So, Hopkinton seems to be the popular town to move to, and I hope it doesn’t stay that way, because we just can’t afford it.”
Thompson attempted to further explain the details of Chariho budgeting, but residents had heard enough.
“This is too much detail,” one woman said. “I understand the school budget is important, but the history and this level of detail is not specific to what we’re here for.”
Councilor Barbara Capalbo reminded residents that they have opposed almost every commercial development that has been proposed for the town.
“Hopkinton does not like commercial development,” she said. “… You didn’t want gas stations, you haven’t wanted welcome centers, you didn’t want studios, you didn’t want Six Flags, you didn’t want retail, you didn’t want big box, and this council agreed with you. But we have to have something.”
Resident John Pennypacker said he would welcome businesses that created local jobs.
“What kinds of businesses would we want? The ones with jobs. The ones that provide Hopkinton residents with jobs, that provides an exchange of currency in the town. Not something that’s run by an out of state developer, on the internet,” he said.
To date, the council has approved 19 solar projects. Six projects received requested zoning changes from residential to commercial, seven are in commercial or manufacturing zones where they are permitted by right, and six have been built on farms under the town’s farm viability ordinance.
There are 12 additional solar projects proposed, three in commercial or manufacturing zones and nine which would require zoning changes.
The current target of residents’ anger is a large commercial solar solar project on 139 acres at 310 Main Street, which received approval for zoning and comprehensive plan amendments from the council, despite a negative advisory opinion from the Planning Board. Abutters claim that the builder, Green Development, clear-cut the site to within 10 feet of neighboring homes, eliminating the promised wooded buffer between the solar facility and the neighbors.
Residents have also expressed annoyance that heavy logging and construction equipment has been monopolizing Maxson Hill Road and that work at the site begins much earlier than the permitted 8 a.m. start time.
Landolfi brought the discussion back to the Chariho budget, which he described as being out of control. He encouraged residents to attend the budget workshops, which will begin in January, and to pressure the school district to make reductions.
“The bigger picture, in my opinion, is trying to control the expense which is Chariho,” he said. “We need more people at the budget meetings to complain about this budget and to have them reduce it, because we have three out of four of our [School Committee] members who just rubber stamp it and it’s very, very frustrating.”