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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 said it wasn’t notified about the plans until it was invited to an abutters meeting last week (Jan. 25). Robert Coons is struggling to keep his farm afloat and the school is concerned about economic and other ramifications to the school. Pictured is the Coons family farm.

Steiner School says it was blindsided by solar array plan next door as town writes zoning bylaws

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By Monday, Jan 30, 2017 News 17

Great Barrington — A proposed commercial solar project that prompted the town to start writing solar zoning regulations has run up against another snag because of its residential/agricultural location and because it will sit at the edge of a Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School’s soccer field and close to playgrounds for the school’s youngest children.

The early childhood building of the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School, left, rear. The access road to the solar array would run along the right side of the playground fence. Photo: Heather Bellow

The early childhood building of the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School, left, rear. The access road to the solar array would run along the right side of the playground fence. Photo: Heather Bellow

It also raises other issues, like the survival of farms and other hard-pressed organizations in an economically depressed rural region for which solar arrays can be either a financial benefit or an aesthetic drawback.

Another possible twist is what happens to a change in use of what was designated agricultural land where property taxes have, for decades, been reduced. It’s something the town may now have to untangle with help from the Department of Revenue (DOR), and could trigger, based on Massachusetts General Laws, either a right of first refusal for the town to purchase the farmland or a stiff rollback tax on the landowner.

Watertown-based Kearsarge Energy plans to lease 20 acres off West Plain Road from Robert and Arthur Coons, farmers who own and work the fields on the eastern side of the Steiner School and, for years, ran a small dairy operation.

The ground-mounted solar array would be constructed on 10 to 12 acres of that land and would generate 3 million kilowatt hours per year, enough energy to run the equivalent of 230 homes. The state program for net metering is forcing the array to be built by May 8. The net metering credits for the project are to be sold to three central Massachusetts municipal entities. Because the Coonses aren’t producing the energy for their farm, this might be another trigger for that right of first refusal or rollback tax based on state law.

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

Kearsarge has already had to navigate the town’s basic zoning regulations — or lack thereof. That will likely change come town meeting time but, for now, state law kicks in and only restricts the location of solar projects if they might endanger public health and safety.

Great Barrington isn’t alone. The issue of where to allow large solar arrays is becoming increasingly complex for towns that haven’t figured this out yet. For instance, in Plymouth last year, abutters sued the town over its interpretation of state law. And, just as in Great Barrington, Plymouth will see new solar zoning bylaws head to its town meeting this spring.

And the Boston Globe reported back in 2013 about local resistance to large-scale projects.

In this case, building inspector Edwin May refused to issue a building permit because the land in question is zoned for residential and agricultural use.

Kearsarge attorney Peter Puciloski will challenge that ruling at the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) on Feb. 8, saying the public isn’t at risk at all, which is the state law standard.

The matter hit the Planning Board last week and the board voted unanimously to send a positive recommendation to the ZBA that essentially says only state law is pertinent here. Board chair Brandee Nelson said the board also wants its typical site plan review for this and future solar projects.

Nelson said the board further encourages attendance at the ZBA public hearing on the matter on Feb. 8.

Nelson said planning board member Jonathan Hankin, who lives next to the school and not far from the Coonses, was told by the state that he did not need to recuse himself from that vote since he is not a direct abutter of the land in question.

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

But the 30-year-old school is, and Tom Sternal, president of the school’s board of trustees said the potential consequences of the array are “significant.” The school is holding a public meeting Wednesday, Feb. 1, at 7 p.m., where both Robert Coons and Kearsarge representatives will be present to answer questions.

The solar equipment will be situated about 400 feet from the school’s early childhood building, where there is a nursery and kindergarten in which children spend a lot of time outside. The solar farm access road will be a few feet away from one playground. The array itself will immediately abut a soccer field.

Kearsarge plans to build a chain-link fence surrounded by plantings to hide it. At a recent Selectboard meeting, Puciloski said that there would be no noise and no lights.

But Puciloski, who could not be reached Monday, never mentioned the close proximity to the school, nor did any other town officials, though one confirmed with The Edge that, indeed, the situation had prompted a drafting of solar zoning bylaws.

About 400 feet away from the early childhood playground would be a large, ground-mounted solar array that would generate energy for three municipalities in central Massachusetts. Photo: Heather Bellow

About 400 feet away from this early childhood playground would be a large, ground-mounted solar array that would generate energy for three municipalities in central Massachusetts. Photo: Heather Bellow

Sternal said that while the school supports solar energy and knew Coons was considering some kind of solar installation, the school was blindsided, having only learned about this particular project just last week when representatives were invited by Kearsarge and Coons to an abutters meeting. Sternal said the school is simply trying to digest the ramifications of the array.

“Until last week the school did not understand the location, the size, or the timing of the project,” Sternal said. “We’re just attempting to collect as much information as possible to share with our families, hear their concerns, and work with Kearsarge Energy to bring about a solution.”

Sternal said the school hadn’t yet been given an opportunity to talk to Kearsarge or Coons to come up with “creative solutions.”

“We were told this project needs to happen in current scope and by May 8,” he added. “And if our conversation impedes that, it puts us in a horrible situation of not having information to measure the economic impact on the school. If we oppose it, we’re seen as obstructionists. Our backs have been put against the wall.”

The Coons family owns farmland on both sides of West Plain Road. The farm is struggling and the family wants to lease some of its land for solar production. Photo: Heather Bellow

The Coons family owns farmland on both sides of West Plain Road. The farm is struggling and the family wants to lease some of its land for solar production. Photo: Heather Bellow

Robert Coons said he did not want to comment ahead of the meeting and Kearsarge’s Henry Barrett said he was unable to comment yet.

Sternal further said that the school had always assumed the Coonses farm would remain a working farm because of its agricultural designation, and the economic ramifications of removing it from that official use. “Our desire is to see that remain a working farm and in its current form.”

But Coons is likely trying to stay afloat, like so many farmers. Sternal said the school was “compassionate” about this and that the board and Coons are talking. The school, he said, wants to help him. The board doesn’t want Coons to see the school as an “adversary — we’ve been good neighbors.”

Sternal said the board was grappling with having to “confront both the reality and the perceptions [about the array] among current and prospective parents.”

As a Waldorf school, Sternal added, the education is based in a reverence for the natural world “of both the mystery and its resources,” and said the school loves the Coons farm, but “this project disrupts both.”

“In current form,” he said, “this poses a significant risk to the school.”

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17 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Erik Bruun says:

    This is an opportunity for cooperation and mutual success. Both sides have reasonable concerns. We can lift ourselves above the confusion and chaos of our times.

    1. peter greer says:

      I agree Erik. Here s a rough idea to stimulate discussion find a collaborative and symmetrical solution . We need to encourage and move forward with renewable energy , albeit imperfectly, we need to encourage, support and retain our precious farmland and we need to be cognizant of the real economic issues confronting farmers and their families. Putting aside some base issues regarding siting and safety which presumably will be dealt with I’d suggest the following idea. A public/private partnership should lease ,( at a comparable price to the solar owner),acreage from Mr Coons which would be dedicated to food production. The beneficiaries might be the school, the food pantry and anyone else willing to invest some sweat equity to establish maintain and work the land. The solar company would allocate or net meter a portion of the clean energy generated to on site greenhouse to enable production 365 per year .In addition to making this project more holistic and community centered at least a portion of the solar field land would continue to be used for ag purposes which would eliminate the tricky tax /change use issue. The cost of solar has gone down dramatically and I suspect the developer has a bit of room in their business model to work with us to find a more attractive solution .

      1. DB says:

        Thanks James. I was also wondering why people think that the solar arrays will ruin the farmland. I thought…they can always be removed if farming that piece of land becomes more desirable. To produce clean energy is such a good cause….right up there with food. It is all in the eyes of the beholder. I also think solar arrays can be beautiful ….if you change your mind and look at the beautiful thing they do. At cape cod this fall…came around a couple different corners and saw windmills… Shocked at first, then a smile. It says they are forward thinking. It is our perceptions that have to change…eye of the beholder. Change your heart, it will astound you.
        And berms and buffers, privacy fences, all can help keep friendly neighbors. A solar array will be much more pleasing than ATV’s racing around that field! as a farmer, struggling or not, everyone seems to want to chime in on what it is you should or should not do, whether they have ever farmed or not. It is difficult to hear some of the rediculous suggestions people make to help keep farmland farming.

  2. Lawrence Davis-Hollander says:

    I am highly empathetic to the plight of the Coons as a family farm and we must do more to assist local farms to be more economically viable. That said plenty of small scale farmers locally with less land base than the Coons have found ways to compete and prosper with both organic and specialty crops that can be grown in the Berkshires and more opportunities are expanding all the time.

    That said our first consideration should and must be the land. It is outrageous that cultivatable land in the Berkshires is being taken out of production for a non agricultural product that is being shipped off to an energy company and then to homes that have no relation to our community. Doesn’t Berkshire County have energy needs?

    While thankfully solar production is becoming a great alternative to fossil fuels if you combine its environmental consequences in panel manufacture with destroying the use of perfectly good agricultural land, it is possible that a holistic analysis would make it less “green” than we would like to think. I haven’t noticed a lack of roof tops in the Berkshires and other areas of more marginal land that might be more environmentally suited for solar panel installation.

    As often happens it is a lot easier and cheaper to find solutions one dimensionally. Take some flat land and install row after row of panels. In an area where there was unlimited flat land possibly thats a good idea. Here in the Berkshires where we can barely feed ourselves every loss of agricultural land is a loss to all of us, and one that should not be blindly accepted.

    Its too easy for a corporation, even with relatively good intentions, a law firm, a small town with inadequate by-laws and largely volunteer government, and a misguided state, to allow and foster something that is inherently not in the best interest of all people. Special interests are special interests, big and small, and its time we started looking at our land, our environment, and its interrelationship with people as one whole indivisible unit. Then we would create solutions truly in the best interest of all.

  3. Michelle Loubert says:

    Solar is everywhere in Housatonic with little regard to the citizens of this community. We live here, too! It’s a disgrace. It’s tough when you look out your front door and have a solar panel in your face. How about a moratorium on these huge solar projects while Great Barrington leadership figures it out?

  4. Aaron says:

    The pushback against a solar project is among the worst types of NIMBYism, particularly when the space to be put to such use is an open field, requiring no additional clearing of land.

    If people stopped and thought about the opportunity presented by the change, rather than focus on perceived (and largely non-existent) concerns. If a solar project is what help sustains a local farm, by converting a hay field into a renewable energy generation project, then more power to them.

    If the school was thinking logically instead of reactionarily, they might realize the chance to teach the kids about solar power, its benefits, and the rights of private property owners to not be unreasonably constrained by what so far amount to no more than baseless claims and gripes, which at heart, are aesthetic at best.

  5. Pete Raif says:

    These systems are silent, safe, and low to the ground so they can be easily screened with plantings. They also require very little maintenance once they’re installed so the “traffic” to the site has minimal impact on the surrounding community. It seems to me that the array would serve as a great teaching opportunity about how our society can produce clean energy using minimal impact technology. The alternative? I have relatives who live in a small Ohio town that has the same look and feel as our wonderful New England villages. The only difference is just a couple of miles up the road there’s a well fracking operation with all the chemical holding ponds, large noisy rigs, and truck traffic required for its operation. I know which one I prefer.

  6. alex b says:

    @Aaron: I don’t see any push back in the article. Only in the comments.

    And the comment about using agricultural land for agriculture, as opposed to power generation, isn’t an aesthetic gripe. The school sounds like it wants time to work out a solution for everyone to be happy. That’s not push back and it’s not reactionary. It’s rational.

    It makes sense to me to have the town think about how to handle these issues so we don’t have problems in the future.

    1. Aaron says:

      If the school wants a say over how to use the land, I would suggest that they purchase it. “Everyone being happy” is not an appreciable interest. The reactionary element comes from the entitlement that someone thinks that they have some inherent right to alter the otherwise legal and allowable plans of another to utilize their property within the bounds of the law.

      The town has a say in the form of zoning laws, an element of this was notifying Steiner as an abutter. However, the right to be served notice, even the right to register a comment against, does not allow them to dictate how the property (which is not theirs) is used. Unless the Coons are tied into some type of trust or other restriction upon that property, their decision to change its use to a form of non-polluting energy generation is theirs to make, and probably sound, otherwise they wouldn’t be making it.

      Solar is a more efficient use than growing silage.

      1. alex b says:

        If you want to talk about appreciable interest, then the school’s financial stake in the issue can be brought in. If a neighbor does something to one’s land to damage the economic viability of one’s neighbors, there’s your quantifiable problem. But that doesn’t even appear to the main issue. I could be wrong. This is why the zoning needs to be deliberated thoughtfully, not rushed through just because the town hasn’t encountered this issue before. Rushing it is taking advantage of the town’s limited resources to consider what’s happening.

        Discounting “everyone being happy” and only counting “appreciable interest” means you don’t place much value in the harmonious relationship between neighbors. There are unquantifiable benefits that the law factors into decisions like these. Again, not giving anyone or the town time to deliberate is not in the community’s interest. One person’s property rights do not trump everyone else’s.

        Reactionary describes your comments more than what was presented in the article. You’re interpreting an entitlement where none was stated. You’re reacting to words that were never said. You might have more information about this issue than I have and which isn’t in the article, but whatever your perspective, your accusations are out of proportion with what the article says.

        Solar does seem like a great use of the space if it’s not being used, but so might leasing the land to another farmer? As for delaying the project because we don’t have by-laws, why can’t we delay it a few months? The planet isn’t going to die in the next year. The pressing for development when there’s no environmental urgency is manufactured anxiety. I just don’t get why the project needs to happen before the town has time to write up by-laws? (This is more addressing another commenter, not anything you said.) What’s the rush?

  7. David R Guenette says:

    David R Guenette, January 31, 2017

    It is my understanding that the solar array company has committed to plant screening, which will help reduce the aesthetic negative effect of the project. It is my understanding that much of what is classified as agricultural land within the town borders is already under-used, which reflects more than anything else our collective action of spending less on food, regardless of the location of the foods’ source. In terms of wonderful local farms, we need to support them by making them economically viable, either through higher food costs or indirectly through public policy.

    Most important, however, is that the town, state, nation, and planet faces an existential crisis from greenhouse gas, and that the reduction of greenhouse gas is paramount.

    I have been long concerned that some of my fellow citizens place aesthetics—including a romantic view of agriculture—well-above other more fundamental issues, and especially when the potential aesthetic instances happen in their backyards. While this is understandable, it is not, in my opinion, a responsible position from which to oppose the expansion of clean energy production. This comes down to this, literally: saving the planet versus saving the quality of one’s view.

    Should the town create solar array by-laws that take into consideration aesthetics? Of course. Should site location be a factor in any sensible solar array permitting. Without a doubt. Should solar projects be delayed until such a by-law comes into existence? No.

    This is a matter of priorities, and climate change amelioration trumps other considerations except for matters of immediate public safety, which is precisely the formulation of Massachusetts law regarding solar energy. If the economics of the Coons Farm solar array make it possible to bring more clean energy online, while reasonable efforts are made to be considerate neighbors to abutters, such a project should be encouraged. We, as citizens of the world and of Great Barrington, must do all we can to promote the non-fossil fuel energy economy.

  8. Lawrence Davis-Hollander says:

    These comments are exactly what I am talking about. Its not push back, its not NIMBY I am not taking a position about the school or aesthetics. Its about having a deep, holistic, respect for the land and all that such considerations involve, and not a simple minded approach that says solar is good, non-polluting and therefore we should do it. There’s depth of thinking required–and without that we get progressively better forms of greenwashing, but green washing nevertheless.

    Simplistic thinking I am sorry to say has brought us lots of things like strip mines, oil spills and all the rest that an interest group feels like they have every right to protect, because they have a different interest. Solar panels are way better–who could argue with that (but you see the oil industry does argue about that!) and better on its own is not the best solution. We must start thinking about the common good and in bigger terms…thats an educational opportunity….and meanwhile our President is using exactly that kind of simplistic thinking

  9. Shawn G. says:

    I find solar panels/arrays aesthetically pleasing 🙂

  10. james m says:

    The cognitive dissonance in these comments is nothing short of breathtakingly stunning. For starters, why no one questions the location of a school in the middle of arable land miles from anyone and any thing accessible only by carbon loading the atmosphere is risible. And then to haughtily posit that a clean energy generator is an inappropriate land use on neighboring land continues the absurdity. The real nugget was the suggestion from one poster that this could be a great teaching moment for little Johnny and Janie. What would be the lesson here? A feel good scenario of my, look at the array generating clean energy whist we poison the atmosphere getting to and from school.
    The enormous distinctions are obvious between the two land uses. However the big difference is the PV array is modular. They can be removed and the land they sit upon can be available again. This is true with all arrays. Certainly not with the school. The siting in isolation of the school in a rural agricultural setting is yet another example in a long list of the misunderstanding of what goes where in assembling the human habitat. For most of human history up to perhaps 1950, there existed a cross cultural intuition on how to assemble meaningful and tenable places of civic life. In an effort to be modern we as a culture threw all of that know how in the garbage. Declaring we don’t need that anymore. Until there is a consensus on recovering the skill, principle, method, and know how to assemble tenable and resilient dwelling places, these land use conflict will continue.

    1. SC says:

      Thank you. This is my gut response in so many words.

    2. MK says:

      Finally, someone who knows what the hell they’re talking about– and can present it in an articulate and sharp way. You’re a true relief James M!

  11. RG says:

    The footprint of the solar array can and should be reduced without giving up wattage. This means newer and higher wattage equipment that can reduce size
    The school should have a solar installation company look at the array schematic and see if different panels can be used
    Again higher wattage, smaller area, with same energy results

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