HOPKINTON — No dispute in recent years has divided Hopkinton residents as deeply as the struggle over commercial solar energy proposals.
Proponents of the projects say that allowing a few large facilities would stabilize the town’s tax rate and make it possible for less affluent residents to remain in their homes. Opponents, who have formed an advocacy group and hired an attorney, argue that the rural character of Hopkinton and many residents' quality of life are at risk.
Since the Town Council’s denial on Jan. 28 of the Brushy Brook solar proposal, the debate has gotten personal, and the targets of the attacks have been on both sides.
Town Council Vice President Scott Bill Hirst and councilors Sylvia Thompson and Sharon Davis voted to deny the Brushy Brook application.
After the vote, Hirst became the subject of a complaint filed with the Hopkinton Police Department regarding his residency. Documents obtained by The Westerly Sun under the Access to Public Records Act include a complaint, filed on March 14, requesting that the police investigate Hirst’s place of residence and determine whether he had moved out of town.
Hirst, who spent two months at the WARM Center in Westerly, confirmed that he had temporarily moved out of his home but had since moved back.
“I recently experienced a setback and was temporarily staying in Westerly while my Ashaway home was under repair,” he said in a written statement. “I know many of Hopkinton’s residents have experienced difficulties from time to time. I have been responsibly dealing with my difficulty and thanks to the assistance of good friends, I have returned home. I appreciate the interest in my living arrangements, but I always had every intention of returning home as soon as possible and I have.”
The complainant's identity is not known because the documents were extensively redacted by Hopkinton Town Solicitor Kevin McAllister.
“It was a judgment call on my part,” McAllister said. "In formulating the APRA response on behalf of the Town, I am required to consider third-parties’ privacy rights under the APRA statute and in particular under RIGL sec. 38-2-1, which I reference in my cover note to you. Applying this provision’s mandated balancing analysis, I formed the opinion that the public’s right to know the substantive nature of the complaints and the identities of the town offices to which those complaints were directed, was fully served, while at the same time, the reporting individuals’ privacy rights were protected as well.”
Sylvia Thompson said she, too, had been pressured to approve the Brushy Brook proposal. She expressed disappointment that Hirst had been the subject of such a complaint.
“Both Scott and I felt the pressure to reconsider our vote against a zone change that would have allowed a 57-megawatt solar farm on land known as Brushy Brook,” she said. “It’s disappointing to learn how far someone will go because they disagree with your vote. Did the abutter in favor of the zone change think filing a police report against Councilor Hirst would force him from office? Was it payback? Or, just bullying? Scott did nothing wrong. He was out of his house while he had work done to his Ashaway house. Now he’s back home.”
Councilor Barbara Capalbo and council President Frank Landolfi voted in favor of comprehensive plan and zoning changes to allow the Brushy Brook project.
Capalbo has been criticized for negotiating additional benefits, or codicils, from the developer, Southern Sky. She said she felt it was time that the town received additional benefits from commercial solar developers.
Capalbo said there was a precedent for her request in the case of an earlier solar project on Alton-Bradford Road / Route 91: "We discussed at the council that we could negotiate that 20 or 25 percent of our electric bill could be paid. Nothing happened and the vote went through.”
When the council was considering the Brushy Brook proposal, Capalbo said she and Conservation Commission Chair Harvey Buford came up with a list of additional benefits the town might receive from the developer, Southern Sky. Under the proposal, the company would pay for the demolition of the old Ashaway School, give the town a discount on its electricity bills, and provide other benefits, including a contribution of $250,000 to the Town Hall improvement project. To their surprise, Southern Sky agreed to all of these requests.
“We figured they’d say no,” Capalbo said. “I figured they look at it and say ‘We can’t do this, we can’t do that’ but instead, they agreed to everything"
Capalbo has often stated her preference for a few large solar facilities, hidden from public view, over smaller installations scattered throughout the town. She agreed that recent applications for commercial projects in residential zones had caused considerable angst among abutting homeowners. However, some homeowners living farther away from proposed solar sites are signing a pro-solar petition circulated by proponents John Orlandi, Bill Bergan and Jason Tefft. The petition is a response to another petition begun earlier by the opposition group Hopkinton Citizens for Responsible Planning.
“Feelings are very raw, especially in any place where you have solar next to a neighborhood,” Capalbo said. “Those are the most upset people. What’s happening is that people away from it and who are fixed income or young families, or having trouble with their taxes or know it’s going up, and they’re afraid of losing their homes eventually, are the ones signing the petition that Mr. Orlandi and Mr. Bergan and Mr. Tefft began.”
Capalbo said she felt that Hirst had unfairly attacked her and Landolfi during the Brushy Brook hearings.
“Frank and I are the ones protecting people like Scott who cannot protect themselves,” she said. "We are the ones making sure they can stay in town, buy food, keep their homes, take care of their kids. It goes beyond protecting our backyards or maligning those who work for the poorest of our people, not just the competent and wealthier.”
Bill Bergan, whose property abuts the Brushy Brook parcel, said he had supported the solar proposal over the alternative, which would likely be a housing subdivision.
“Brushy Brook has the potential for 140 houses,” he said. “I looked at it in the beginning as, I didn’t want 140 houses and the traffic studies that said 900 to 1,200 cars going in front of my house every day. So with that being said, my original take on the solar thing was — I’ll be perfectly honest with you, it wasn’t selfish but it was self-serving — I looked at the two options, the potential for houses in years to come and for solar.”
Bergan said he began attending town meetings but was disappointed by the behavior of some residents who attended them.
“I didn’t think it was going to get into this hooting and hollering and yelling and cheering, like a political rally,” he said. “That to me is what this has become, basically, a political rally. I think that’s where the town becomes really divided.”
Bergan said he had also supported Capalbo’s plan to extract additional benefits from the Brushy Brook developer.
“Amazon moving into New York City, they wanted all kinds of tax breaks,” he said. “Barbara Capalbo basically did this in reverse. She took the corporation coming in and wanted them to pay us instead of us paying them. That money would feed back into this town.”
Bergan attributes some of the disagreements over commercial solar proposals to the economic disparities in town. Many residents, he said, cannot afford this year’s anticipated tax increase.
“A lot of people in this town, myself included, we can afford $500,” he said. “For some people, $500 at the end of the year is a huge deal. For the people who are 88 years old, on a fixed income, never had 401(k)s, that never had pension plans and all those things, they just worked their whole life somewhere, they’re stuck... . I came into this protecting myself and then I realized, whoa, there’s way more to this than just protecting myself. I’ve lost my battle but there’s still battles going forward. The people in this town need to look at the whole town, not just everybody’s self interest.”
Capalbo, a longtime resident of Ashaway and member of the council for 13 years, conceded that at times she has felt beleaguered by the criticism.
“I’ve lived here 27 years,” she said. “I wasn’t a part-time resident, I was a full-time resident — 27 years, 13 of which I’ve served the citizens of this town. I have people who will talk to me and say ‘I’m so sorry,’ and I say ‘thank you, that’s very nice.’ Luckily, I’m not someone who bursts into tears.”