CHATHAM – Residents who live near a proposed solar array on Middle Road are concerned about the impact of the facility on their quiet neighborhood, and recently asked the planning board for more time to study the plans before issuing site plan approval.
The board concurred, noting that members had quite a few questions about details of the project.
“It's very clear we need a lot more information,” said Chairman Kathryn Halpern.
NextGrid, Inc., is proposing to install 8,136 ground-mounted solar panels on nearly 16 acres of land currently owned by J.W. Dubis and Sons. The California-based solar company, which operates 11 solar arrays in Massachusetts, has a purchase and sales agreement on the property, which has been used as a sand and gravel pit since the 1940s or early '50s, according to attorney William Litchfield.
The 2.5 megawatt facility would provide electricity to Eversource and also allow the town to benefit through a two cent reduction in power costs, Litchfield said. The town now generates about 70 percent of its electrical power through solar arrays at the former landfill and several town buildings.
Property owners along West Pond Road, Pond Road, Goose Pond Road and Middle Road, weren't opposed to the project, but had a number of concerns about the solar photovoltaic array, including noise from an inverter, glare from the panels and the removal of existing trees.
“We live in a quiet residential neighborhood of modest and mostly year-round homes,” 17 of the abutters wrote in a letter to the planning board. “We enjoy the company of our neighbors, our backyards and our proximity to Goose Pond.” They fear that will be threatened by the solar array, and specifically that the lack of a “substantial buffer” and proposed tree-clearing could destroy the existing healthy environment and wildlife habitat.
But neighbors made it clear they don't oppose the solar array in general. “What we are asking is that everything possible be done to minimize the impact,” said Pattie Brockwell of West Pond Road.
NextGrid submitted a revised plan to try to address some of the neighbors' concerns, Litchfield said, including reducing the number of solar panels from 8,424 to 8,136 to allow a wider buffer on the east and west sides of the property. The panels will be contained with in a 7.63-acre area surrounded by a chain link fence, and the undisturbed buffer area along the east side of the property was increased to a minimum of 31 feet, supplemented by the planting of additional vegetation. The previous plan had shown the removal of trees and vegetation right up to the property line.
A 30-foot buffer “just doesn't work,” said West Pond Road resident Steve Jesus. He noted that the plan does not specify the size of the additional plantings. “They could be putting in two-foot trees” which would not help screen neighbors, he said.
The closest abutter is 102 feet from the panels on the east and 68 to 70 feet on the west, Litchfield said. The inverter and battery enclosure was also relocated farther away from abutters.
The plan still calls for the clearing of 5.98 acres of trees and vegetation. Bob Lear, president of the Chatham Conservation Foundation, which owns property abutting the sand pit, questioned whether the solar array would offset the carbon absorption capacity of the lost trees. He noted that a Cape Cod Climate Change Collaborative study found that a 7.5 kilowatt solar array offset the carbon absorption capacity of 50 trees. NextGrid did not specify how many trees are proposed to be removed; Lear urged the planning board to require that information.
Planning board members also noted the absence of that information, which they said is usually required in site plan review. Litchfield said the areas where trees will be cut can be delineated, but counting or tagging every tree to be removed would be difficult; a lot of invasive species will be removed along with the trees, he said. Halpern asked for an overlay on the play so the board can see where the trees will be removed.
“I think we do need to see where that is,” she said.
Other information that the board needs to make a determination is also missing, said Art Spruch.
“I'm supportive of this, but I'm a detail guy,” he said. “I need some information here to confirm what you're doing and where you're doing it.”
Noise from the inverter is also an issue for neighbors. Jesus said residents of the neighborhood now put up with noise from the transfer station, Volunteer Park and trucks traveling Middle Road to the sewer plant. “We don't want to listen to another noise in that neighborhood,” he said.
Litchfield said that studies of other solar facilities have shown that 10 feet from an inverter the noise is at a level equal to normal indoor speech and is inaudible at 150 feet. The inverter and battery cannot be put in a shed for fire safety purposes, he added, but they are enclosed and will be screened with vegetation.
New solar panels do not have the glare problems of older panels, Litchfield said. NextGrid President Aaron Culig said the company would be willing to do a glare study if requested.
The array will generate enough electricity to power about 800 households, Culig said. The value of the two cent discount provided through the state's SMART program would be about $90,000 annually, which could be offered to the town as a discount on its electric bill, or to abutters or any and all residents, he said.
Neighbors need more time to study the revised plan and the additional details being requested, said abutter Renee Gagne.
“This is going to be in our backyards for our lifetime,” she said. “So it's really important that we understand all of the possible impacts and that we are able to digest this revised plan.”
The board continued the hearing to Jan. 14. A zoning board of appeals hearing on a special permit for the project was postponed until Jan. 23.