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School and farmer, both on economic tightwire, work through solar dilemma

Among the usual farm stressors, lowered milk prices prevented farmer Bob Coons from expanding the cowherd, leaving him to look for new ways to survive and leasing 20 of his roughly 200 acres, mostly wetlands, being his only shot at staying on th­e land his family has farmed since the 1950s.

Great Barrington — It is a rural tale of a farmer, struggling financially like most farmers, and a nonprofit school, struggling financially like most nonprofit schools.

Both now find themselves in a shared dilemma over the farmer’s need for income from a large solar installation. Both are trying to function amid a depressed local economy.

The Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School sits right next to the Coons farm, above, where a commercial solar array is proposed on 10-12 acres, 400 feet away from the school’s early childhood building. The school’s board said it only recently learned the details of Kearsarge Energy’s plans. Robert Coons is struggling to keep his farm afloat and the school is concerned about economic and other ramifications to the school. Photo: Heather Bellow
The Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School sits right next to the Coons farm, above, where a commercial solar array is proposed on 10-12 acres, 400 feet away from the school’s early childhood building. The school’s board said it only recently learned the details of Kearsarge Energy’s plans. Robert Coons is struggling to keep his farm afloat and the school is concerned about economic and other ramifications to the school. Photo: Heather Bellow

The farmer cares about the school and the school cares about the farmer. They’ve been happy, considerate neighbors for more than 30 years.

Among the usual farm stressors, lowered milk prices prevented farmer Bob Coons from expanding the cowherd, leaving him to look for new ways to survive, with leasing 20 of his roughly 200 acres, mostly wetlands, being his only shot at staying on th­e land his family has farmed since the 1950s. He said this will allow him to keep all his other acres “open,” but “it’s not the option that makes us the most money.”

Enter Kearsarge Energy, a Watertown-based solar development company with local roots, caught in the middle. Kearsarge’s Henry Barrett used to walk through Coons’ woods on his way to the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School every morning. His father, Peter, was on the school’s board. And at a public meeting Wednesday (Feb. 1) at the school, Coons said he chose Kearsarge for these neighborhood ties—he didn’t want to sell off land to just any developer, land that is just several hundred feet from both his farmhouse and the school’s nursery and kindergarten building.

It will be a 10- to 12-acre array for a public off-taker only and will generate power to be sold at a discount to three municipal entities in central Massachusetts. It is more than twice the size of the school.

It is this that has the Steiner school and its families worried, along with an access road that runs right along the early childhood parking lot and playground. Both Barrett and Kearsarge founder Andrew Bernstein explained that a solar array is completely safe.

Kearsarge Energy’s Henry Barrett, left, and Andrew Bernstein, right. Photo Heather Bellow
Kearsarge Energy’s Henry Barrett, left, and Andrew Bernstein, right. Photo Heather Bellow

“You could put your hand on a panel on a hot day and you wouldn’t burn,” Bernstein said.

Everything electrical is in a lockbox just like on town s­­­treets. And the electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs) produced are negligible and less than what comes off the poles now on the road, he added. “A fridge at one foot [away] has 10 times as much,” Bernstein said.

The construction period is quick and doesn’t involve lots of heavy machinery or trucks, he noted. But what if a child climbed the security fence around the array, one parent asked? No risks from the array, said Bernstein and Barrett.

Former parent and solar developer Seth Goldstein said he was concerned about traffic on the access road during construction. Bernstein also said that Coons had offered an alternative access road, this one from his farm, during the 2- to 3-month construction period to keep the equipment away from the playground and parking lot.

Coons said if the array weren’t safe or screened, he wouldn’t want it in his backyard, either.

There are parents who have threatened the school’s board that they might pull their children out if the array goes forward, according to board president Tom Sternal. And other parents said they would pull their children out if the school were to stop this clean energy project. One parent said he was “embarrassed” by parents who were threatening the board.

Former Steiner school parent Seth Goldstein, a solar developer himself, is helping advise the school about the project. Standing from left, board members Tracy Thornton Fernbacher, Bob Redpath and Holly Henderson-Fisher. Photo: Heather Bellow
Former Steiner school parent Seth Ginsberg, a solar developer himself, is helping advise the school about the project. Standing from left, board members Tracy Thornton Fernbacher, Bob Redpath and Holly Henderson-Fisher. Photo: Heather Bellow

Kearsarge’s plans are “fluid” and about “30 percent” solid, Bernstein said, leaving room for possible adjustments everyone can agree on.

But the legal part is up to the town and the lawyers. The town’s building inspector said no to what he calls “light industrial” use on 10-12 acres of a residential/agricultural zoned parcel. School neighbor and planning board member Jonathan Hankin told the group that Kearsarge will appeal the building inspector’s interpretation at a Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) hearing next Wednesday.

In response to this situation, the town whipped up solar regulations for its bylaws but not soon enough, and so state law kicks in until those amendments can be approved at Annual Town Meeting in May. The new bylaw solar amendment, however, encourages this solar use of farmland to keep farms from going under. Those new additions will be addressed by the planning board in a public hearing this Thursday, Feb. 9.

But further complicating matters is that state law is open to local interpretation. All it says is that solar arrays can’t be restricted unless there is a public safety or health threat, and that they must be reasonably located.

As the building inspector found out, that reasonableness standard is not so easy to navigate.

The access road would run just a few feet from the early childhood playground. Photo: Heather Bellow
The access road would run just a few feet from the early childhood playground. Photo: Heather Bellow

Another complication is that Kearsarge has to get the array built by May 8 or else lose its profits from it because of a state program that regulates the timing of how much power is put into the grid. Ginsberg said if they don’t jump now, Kearsarge might have to wait until 2018 when the next program cycle begins.

This deadline has left the school reeling from some communication glitches both internally and with Kearsarge, Sternal said. As a result, the board says it only saw detailed plans and diagrams about one week ago. And Coons also says he now wishes he had sent a letter last spring rather than have casual conversations with administrators as he had always done in the past. Both parties say they want to move beyond “process” issues and focus on what to do next.

But right now, these are all murky waters that could possibly present an even larger threat to the entire neighborhood if the solar project is squashed: a multi-home residential development with more traffic, sewer lines—the whole works––all of which could alter the working farm and natural landscape ­to an even more artificial degree than the solar array.

Coons and his wife, Vicki, made this decision to prevent that, Coons said. “Do we sell our land to the highest bidder? A developer who doesn’t care?”

Coons said he never expected the school to consult him about its plans over the years. And he went on to explain how, among other neighborly gestures, he farmed with respect for the school. He didn’t spread manure during festivals like May Day, for instance.

Vicki and Bob Coons, who have farmed the land next door to the Steiner school since the 1950s. Photo Heather Bellow
Vicki and Bob Coons, who have farmed the land next door to the Steiner school since the 1950s, read a letter they wrote to the school. Photo Heather Bellow

Everyone laughed.

Sternal said the school is pro-solar; “for years” it had looked into its own array but didn’t have the money to do it. But Bernstein said he knows a developer who could sell discounted power to the school through a private program—he said he and Barrett were willing to help with this.

The school is also pro-farmer, Sternal added, noting the significant number of farmers “in the parent body” past and present.

It is the attitudes of current and future parents the board is worried about, because that could lead to enrollment issues that could spell financial disaster for a school that “operates on the tip of a knife, on a razor’s edge,” as one board member, Holly Henderson-Fisher, put it.

Sixty percent of the school’s 192 students are on financial aid, she added. And Sternal later told the Edge that 90 percent of enrollment is tuition-based.

“We are not at maximum enrollment,” Sternal said. “People accuse me of NIMBY, but this is literally in our backyard.”

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 school 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 can be seen running alongside the school playground and parking lot. It divides the Coons’ land, right, from the school soccer field, left.

“Many of you have moved here to put your kids in that idyllic setting,” said parent Michael Cohen, referring to the early childhood building and grounds. “These are metal panels.” He further said the placement of this project isn’t the “only option,” and reminded everyone of the residential zoning. “The school needs to take some time to measure this.”

Another parent pointed out that enrollment declines at the school might also hurt the town, which has seen a boom in property values and important tax revenue–not to mention an infusion of money into local businesses–from Steiner parents who moved their personal and work lives here from New York City or other areas just to send their children to what is considered one of the best Waldorf schools in the country.

“Thirty-five percent of families moved here for this school,” said board member Tracy Thornton. “It is real.”

But Ben Barrett, Henry Barrett’s uncle said, very gingerly, that it was also possible that the solar array could also impress prospective parents.

Henderson-Fisher said the May 8 deadline was forcing the board to make quick decisions about something that could have massive liability ramifications. Sternal later said the board is “actively working with Mr. and Mrs. Coons and Kearsarge” to find solutions.

“Is there not a collaboration that could be forged that could prevent [Coons] from losing that land?” Henderson-Fisher said, in a desperate way, to those assembled.

“The school is in the same position as Bob Coons.”

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