HOPKINTON — In a two-hour, remotely-held public hearing Wednesday, members of the Planning Board issued a negative advisory opinion on a proposed commercial solar facility.
Board chairman Alfred DiOrio recused himself from the hearing and the vote because he has previously done surveying work for one of the applicants on a different project.
Centrica Business Solutions and property owner Maitland Fothergill requested zoning and comprehensive plan amendments in order to build a large commercial solar array in a residential neighborhood at 10-A Crandall Lane. Commercial solar arrays are currently prohibited in residential zones.
Project engineer Jason Gold, of ESS Group Inc., described the project, a solar array with 11,588 panels that would occupy 13.3 acres of the wooded 47-acre property. A more detailed plan, which will include the results of noise studies and a decommissioning plan, will be submitted if the project makes it to the next phase of the application.
The project would be located in the center of a densely-built residential neighborhood, prompting a lengthy discussion of buffers and setbacks from abutting properties.
“At this point, it’s just that the buffers will be vegetated as required,” Gold said. “As far as more specific details, that’ll be at the next stage.”
Steven Surdut, the attorney representing the developers, elaborated on the nature of the buffer.
“There are pine trees primarily occupying the buffer areas and we would maintain those to the best of our ability,” he said.
Town Planner James Lamphere explained that the project came under the provisions of the town’s solar ordinance, which only requires a 25-foot setback from abutting properties.
“There have been some misconceptions out there that there’s supposed to be a 100-foot separation,” he said. “That is not a requirement of this solar ordinance. Although the 100-foot setback is in there for industrial structures in a residential zone, that’s in our zoning ordinance, the larger zoning ordinance.
"But our solar ordinance was created specifically for solar arrays, given the nature of the array itself. That’s the interpretation that town staff has applied.”
Board member Carolyn Light said 25 feet would not provide sufficient separation between neighboring homes and the array.
“I’m not a fan of a 25-foot setback in a densely populated residential zone,” she said. “There are too many abutters that are going to be impacted, and we’ve had experiences where a 25-foot setback, it just doesn’t work.”
Another major concern was the plan itself, which had been revised between its original submission in January 2019 and the one discussed at Wednesday’s hearing.
“The plan that was submitted in January prior to the current solar ordinance, which is grandfathered, has a different configuration, layout, of the solar panels than what you provided in you packet,” Lamphere said. “That is what was presented at the time and that is what is grandfathered. People were notified to come to the [town] clerk's office and view copies of the proposed plan. The plan that you’ve been provided in your packet differs from what they saw in the clerk’s office.”
Lamphere said he had spoken with one abutter who said the solar panels were closer to his property in the revised plan.
“I would say that maneuvers such as this really confuse the public,” he said.
Gold explained that the plan had changed following a survey of the property.
“Normally we submit a concept that’s based on GIS and then as the design progresses, you get a survey and the layout changes,” he said. “What happened here is that because there’s been such a long delay, we’ve had that survey done, so you’re actually just seeing a more advanced concept since the original was submitted.”
Lamphere said the plans viewed by abutters did not show the changes in the configuration of the array, which might have led some to refrain from objecting to it.
“The first plan that they saw ... does not show any panels near their house, so one might be inclined to not be in opposition …. If someone has an opinion based upon the first thing that they saw that they might now have any objection to, they might say to themselves ‘Well, I don’t have any objection to the plan. There’s no purpose in me going to the Planning Board meeting.' … But now, when the Planning Board is given another plan that has the panels closer to his back yard, he’d say ‘Hey wait a minute. Maybe I do have an objection to that.’”
After the public comment period, during which several residents spoke against the project, board member Emily Schumchenia returned to the question at hand: whether the proposal was consistent with the town’s comprehensive plan.
“It doesn’t mater what plan we saw today,” she said. “I would think that the plan presented for this property, to propose a solar array of this size in this neighborhood, would be inconsistent with the Hopkinton comprehensive plan.”
Board Vice Chairman Ronald Prellwitz agreed.
“The negatives, in my opinion, greatly outweigh any positives,” he said.
With DiOrio abstaining, the board voted unanimously to issue a negative advisory opinion on the project to the Town Council, which will consider the application at its July 6 meeting.