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Communication meltdown has school scrambling over neighbor’s solar plan

Steiner board president Tom Sternal said, while some administrators knew the school’s neighbor was considering building a solar array, neither the administration nor the school’s board understood the size and scope of the project until around one week ago.

Great Barrington — The owner of the energy company proposing a commercial solar array on a residential/agricultural parcel 400 feet from the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School nursery and kindergarten says Kearsarge Energy had communicated its plans to some administrators at the school as far back as April and, from the beginning, has wanted to work with the school.

The solar array will fit inside the blue and white lines, a 10- to 12-acre parcel. The access road can be seen running alongside the playground and parking lot. It divides the Coons’ land, right, from the school soccer field, left.
The solar array will fit inside the blue and white lines, a 10- to 12-acre parcel. The access road will run alongside the playground and parking lot. It divides the Coons’ land, right, from the school soccer field, left.

But Steiner board president Tom Sternal said that while some administrators knew the school’s neighbor was considering building a solar array, neither the administration nor the school’s board understood the size and scope of the project until around one week ago.

“We knew of interest by Kearsarge and Coons and we had conversations, but the size, placement, access road and timing were not provided to us. The first time we saw any map or diagram was last week.”

And because Kearsarge has a May 8 state-imposed deadline for completion, Sternal says it doesn’t give the school community much time to measure the impact of the project, an installation that will change the natural farm landscape, and thus may pose economic risks to the private Waldorf school. Also, the access road runs just a few feet away along the length of the kindergarden playground.

The school’s neighbor, farmer Robert Coons, has plans to lease 20 acres to Kearsarge for the 10- to 12-acre array, which will generate 32 kilowatts for several municipal off-takers in central Massachusetts. This 20-acre parcel is zoned for residential/agricultural use, and it is on these grounds that the town’s building inspector refused to green light the project.

But the town – like many towns – has scrambled to add zoning regulations to its bylaws, and in fact will hold a public hearing for those additions on Thursday, Feb. 9, the day after the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) hears Kearsarge’s appeal of the building inspector’s ruling.

While the town’s planning board has written up draft solar zoning amendments that include a consideration of aesthetics of such installations, it also recognizes increasing “the economic viability of agricultural viability by providing an alternative revenue source.” The timing is no coincidence.

The Coons family farm. Photo: Heather Bellow
The Coons family farm. Photo: Heather Bellow

But until those amendments are approved at Annual Town Meeting in May, state law kicks in. The Massachusetts General Laws say this about solar zoning: “No zoning ordinance or by-law shall prohibit or unreasonably regulate the installation of solar energy systems or the building of structures that facilitate the collection of solar energy, except where necessary to protect the public health, safety or welfare.”

Kearsarge founder and managing partner Andrew Bernstein said Tuesday (Jan. 31) by phone that both he and Henry Barrett, senior associate for development and asset management, grew up locally, with Barrett having attended the school.

Since 2009 Kearsarge, Bernstein said, has built around 21 such arrays in different kinds of locations including abbeys and municipal landfills. He says arrays next to schools or on top of them are common and that there are over 200 in the state. He said Kearsarge’s “focus is on health and safety,” though he said the array will not throw off electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs), and that the most EMFs are coming off the utility poles already in place on West Plain Road.

To screen the 7-foot-high solar panels, Bernstein said there will be a fence of the same height around the installation and said that, for aesthetic reasons, Coons suggested a black one instead of galvanized steel. “It will be less noticeable,” Bernstein added.

The view from the kindergarten playground. The 10- to 12-acre array will be surrounded by a fence and landscaping. Photo: Heather Bellow
The view from the kindergarten playground. The 10- to 12-acre array will be surrounded by a fence and landscaping. Photo: Heather Bellow

He said the transmission lines will run underground along the service road and out to West Plain Road where two new poles will be installed by National Grid.

Bernstein said he doesn’t want to get involved in school politics about who knew what and when. “We want to work with the school,” he said.

The school will hold a public meeting Wednesday, February 1 at 7 p.m. where Bernstein, Barrett and Coons will be present to answer questions. Coons told the Edge in a previous story that he did not want to comment ahead of the meeting.

While Kearsarge wasn’t able to sell the discounted power from this array to the school since it is part of a public state program, Bernstein said he just learned of a solar farm that the private school could enter into a deal with. He noted that, for the right age group at the school, Kearsarge is also offering an “educational component” in learning about solar energy conversion.

He further said Kearsarge “will do whatever the [town] planning board suggests for proper screening and landscaping” around the array.

Sternal says the school “appreciates that this is a fluid, complex situation with the possibility for a drop-in communication, another reason why we must proceed thoughtfully and carefully. We want to focus our energy on the project. We’re not questioning the process. But we need time to review it.”

Bernstein said that given Coons’ situation as a struggling farmer trying to stay afloat amid a depressed economy, this was a good “alternative” considering other uses of the land that might be allowed under current zoning.

“He doesn’t want residential development there,” Bernstein said. And in terms of aesthetics, “The person who will be most disturbed by this is Bob [Coons]. It’s a tough decision for Bob.”

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