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Concerns bog down solar field

By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / October 16, 2011

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Neighborhood concerns over a proposal to build a 3.1 megawatt solar energy installation on the site of a North Carver cranberry bog are sending town officials and project supporters scurrying for answers.

Proponents of the project “have a lot of work to do’’ before it can go forward, Carver planning director Jack Hunter said after a public hearing earlier this month in which more than 40 neighbors attended, most to express opposition.

“They’re concerned about the proximity to their houses,’’ Hunter said, of neighbors in the 31-house subdivision near the Middleborough town line that abuts the proposed solar field. “Concerned about the view. They submitted a ton of documentation. They’re concerned about noise, electro-magnetic fields, hazardous materials in the panels.’’

The town’s Conservation Commission also heard from the neighbors.

“The opposition is the proximity to some of its neighbors,’’ said conservation agent Sarah Hewins, who is also a town selectwoman. “One thing that can be done is we can work with other boards to try to make this a win-win situation’’ for both solar power and the neighbors.

Private developers are seeking to build a 7-acre solar farm on the bog off Purchase Street.

The site was originally planned for a cranberry bog by its owners, who applied for and received a permit to excavate a new bog.

But cranberry prices have stayed low, and the land’s owners - three partners doing business as Rocky Meadow Development Corp. - switched to solar farming as a potentially better opportunity that would allow them to take advantage of federal tax incentives for renewable energy.

But residents in the neighborhood, which straddles the town line, say they feel betrayed by a development that replaces an agricultural use with an industrial one.

“We feel we bought our house under false pretenses,’’ said Elise Young of Leland Way last week. “We thought it was going to be a beautiful view of reservoirs and cranberries behind our house.’’

Elise and Patrick Young bought their newly constructed house a year ago from a builder who is also a partner in Rocky Meadow Development Corp.

Agricultural views would add value to their house, Elise Young said, but an industrial use for a neighbor is likely to detract from it.

And at 50 feet away from her property line, the project is too close, said Young, who says she is also worried about its impact on the environment.

“We have deer running through our backyard,’’ she said.

Rocky Meadow Development Corp. officials could not be reached for comment. Company officer Barry McNeill, of Seekonk, did not return phone calls.

Given the rural character of their neighborhood, some neighbors are also questioning why the town is permitting an industrial project to apply for a permit in an area zoned for residential and agricultural use.

Attorney Rene Pickett, who represents David Rhodes of Leland Way, said the town is considering solar a “by right’’ use, requiring no special permit to build even in a residential zone.

While state law forbids communities from banning alternative energy projects outright or setting up unreasonable restrictions, Pickett contends the law does not require these projects to be allowed in all zones.

“My interpretation of the statute is that it should not automatically be considered a use of right,’’ Pickett said last week.

Another neighbor, Kristen McGourthy of Captain Hall Road, wrote the Planning Board that she was concerned the project would pose a danger to her handicapped sons, who she says are “sensitive to electro-magnetic fields.’’

The children have Deep Brain Stimulators, medical implants whose manufacturer has stated that “sources of strong electromagnetic interference can result in many complications including serious patient injury or even death,’’ according to her Sept. 30 letter.

If electromagnetic interference from a solar installation could present a danger to them, she would not be able to allow her children to go outdoors, McGourthy stated.

Town officials say that all of the concerns raised at the public hearing will reviewed by the applicant’s consultants and also by the town’s consultants and addressed at the next hearing, scheduled for Nov. 1.

Hunter said the Planning Board’s practice is to ask the proponent to hire professionals to provide responses to all questions raised by the public and then have the town’s consultants review them as well. Carver selectmen were scheduled to discuss the proposal last week as well.

While the town’s experts said they were talking to both the neighbors and the project’s developer, they said it was too early to respond to concerns such as the health issue raised by the McGourthy family.

Glen Berkowitz of Beaufort Energy Solutions, who has worked for the town before, said he held one meeting with a group of abutters already and has another scheduled.

David Milner of Nugent Capital of Rhode Island, which is considering investing in the project, said the health issue raised by McGourthy’s letter has been studied extensively.

“After research into these issues, these concerns will drop dramatically if not go away altogether,’’ Milner said.

The same kind of power transformers that would be used in the solar field are found much closer to houses on power lines, sometimes on roofs, and at schools, he said.

But Milner also said Nugent Capital, which is involved in plans for other projects in the state as well, is interested in “what the town wanted to do,’’ and “the town’’ includes the project’s neighbors. Developers of successful alternative energy projects frequently credit strong local support.

Rocky Meadow Development Corp. has sought to address questions raised about the appropriateness of siting a solar power project in a residential area by citing a written opinion from attorneys Kopelman & Paige, legal counsel for Carver and many other communities, that concludes that under state law the right of renewable energy projects like solar trump local zoning rules and should be treated as “by right’’ applicants.

Project backers also cited comparisons with other projects to show that the Carver proposal was neither atypically close to abutting residences, or outsized. The Brockton Brightfields, a 3-acre installation built five years ago and widely hailed, for example, was built closer to homes than the Carver project would be. A recent project built in a capped landfill in Canton is twice the size of the Carver project at 15 acres.

The plan proposed for the Carver project calls for two separate solar fields.

The field closer to Leland Way is a 2.9-acre array of linked solar panels to be built in the recently excavated cranberry bog. The other solar field would be built in a wooded area on the opposite side of a cranberry reservoir much farther from the houses. It would be about 3 1/2 acres and buffered by trees to conceal it from sight.

Robert Knox can be reached at