Planning Board OKs solar project
Date: 7/26/2011July 27, 2011
By Debbie Gardner
AGAWAM The town of Agawam just moved one step closer to benefiting from the green energy revolution.
At its July 21 meeting, the Agawam Planning Board, by a vote of 4-0-0, approved a site plan allowing the for-profit arm of Citizens Energy Corporation to construct a 13.1 acre solar collecting facility on undeveloped industrial land owned by Westmass Area Development Corporation (Westmass). Westmass President Ken Delude told the audience that, when completed,the project would result in a 15 percent energy savings for the town.
Land for the proposed project, located between Shoemaker Lane and Cesan Drive, is a portion of the former Bowles Airport. The project must still receive approval from the Conservation Commission at its July 28 meeting before construction, slated for the fall, can begin.
Following last Thursday’s vote, Planning Board Chairman Travis Ward thanked Citizens Energy “for choosing Agawam for this project.”
Founded in 1979 by Joseph P. Kennedy III, Citizens Energy Corporation creates and uses for-profit energy ventures such as the proposed solar facility to fund worldwide social initiatives, including its well-known fuel assistance program for the poor and elderly.
“WestMass has been marketing that property for 10 to 15 years,” Agawam’s Director of Planning and Community Development Deborah Dachos told Reminder Publications. “It’s an out parcel [and] when the state built the rest of Route 57, it was cut of from the [rest of the industrial park].”
She said under Massachusetts General Law’s Chapter 43-D, an expedited permitting program, the town had identified the parcel as a priority development site a few years ago.
According to Dachos, Citizens Energy approached Westmass about leasing the property and then began working on permits for the project in February and met with various town department heads on June 28. The appearance before the Planning Board on Thursday night was for the approval of modifications to the plan’s original design and specifications.
Steven D’Ambrosio, project manager from GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc. of Springfield, presented the revised plan to Planning Board members, noting that the site would consist of approximately 6,000 3-by-6-foot solar panels arranged in rows, a 10-by-10 foot maintenance building, an electricity conversion pad, gravel access roads, a chain link containment fence and various plantings.
When completed, the facility is expected to generate 4.7 megawatts of passive solar electricity.
“You’re looking at a very quiet neighbor,” D’Ambrosio told the board and abutters who attended the presentation.
He added that a part of the modifications being presented that evening included a 20-foot wide vegetative screen, including Red Oak, Eastern Cedar and Arborvities, designed to shield the panels from neighbor’s view.
“I know there are some raised ranches and two-story buildings and we’re trying to screen them from looking at the panels,” D’Ambrosio said.
Planning Board Member Michael Morassi asked why the plan called for only a 20-foot screen and not “the 25 or 30-foot you originally spoke of” in the initial plan.
D’Ambrosio explained that during the design phase, planners realized to maintain the number of megawatts of generation desired, they needed to install a certain number of panels. That requirement translated into a slight reduction of the buffer area.
Morassi also asked about the growth period of the proposed plantings, saying he didn’t want abutters to be waiting “three to five years” for effective screening of the facility. He also asked if there was any way to leave some of the existing trees and vegetative growth during the site clearing.
Daniel Nitzsche, a project environmental scientist with GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc., said the project managers would “make very effort to make the screen as effective as possible [and] not make the abutters wait five years.”
D’Ambrosio added that developers would maintain existing vegetation wherever possible.
Planning Board Member Mark Paleologopoulos asked if there was a completed facility in the area where abutters could get a sense of what rows of solar panels would actually look like.
D’Ambrosio said there was a facility on Cottage Street in Springfield that residents could visit.
Both Paleologopoulos and Morassi expressed concerns about potential vandalism to the panels, and were told the individual units were too difficult and heavy to remove, and a 24-hour monitoring system would be employed to deter vandals.
Though this was not a public hearing, Ward opened the floor and asked for comments and questions from abutters.
A woman in the audience asked about any potential health hazards posed by the amount of energy collected through the panels. Nitzsche said that the panels only collect energy and do not generate an electromagnetic field, so they pose no health hazard. Another abutter asked how close to property lines the fence and vegetative screen would be placed. D’Ambrosio said it would be 20-feet inside the Westmass property line. Debbie Gardner can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com