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

“Until last week the school did not understand the location, the size, or the timing of the project. 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. -- Tom Sternal, president of the board of trustees at the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School

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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