Originally published in The Weekly Packet, January 19, 2023
The debate continues for SolAmerica
Result of public hearing is another hearing
by Maggie White
“Honesty in business is paramount, and in government. I ask the committee to uphold the will of the voters,” said Blue Hill resident William Rand, addressing the Planning Board during a January 11 public hearing at the town hall.
The hearing was held because it had been determined that three abutters to an approved large-scale solar energy facility on South Street, one of whom was Rand, had never received certified notification of the project. Blue Hill’s Commercial Site Plan Review Ordinance requires proof that “notice of the applicant’s intent to file the application has been provided to each abutting lot owner by certified mail”.
The outcome of the hearing was the scheduling of a follow-up hearing and final review, tentatively set for Wednesday, February 8. Between now and then, the applicant, SolAmerica, has been charged with providing updated plans and supporting materials for some of the issues that have been called into question—including the lack of an up-to-date, engineer-approved site plan.
“We felt at this juncture that we didn’t have enough information to make a positive finding on some of the criteria for the project,” said Planning Board Chair Mary Alice Hurvitt.
How a large-scale solar farm was approved
SolAmerica’s project has been an issue of ongoing contention. The Atlanta-based corporation’s application for a 16-acre facility was initially rejected by the Planning Board in June 2022, as it was “not an accepted use,” according to town attorney Aga Dixon of the firm Drummond Woodsum. Because Blue Hill’s Commercial Site Plan Review Ordinance caps the size of solar farms at 2.5 acres, the size alone rendered it impermissible.
SolAmerica appealed the rejection before the Board of Appeals in August, the crux of their argument being that the term “subtransmission line” was not defined within the ordinance. As a clear, consistent definition of the term was not found in a dictionary or elsewhere, the definition both parties eventually agreed upon was one that enabled SolAmerica to argue that their project fell within the exception to the size limitation that was outlined in the ordinance.
The Board of Appeals agreed with SolAmerica that theirs was a permissible use, and the project was ultimately approved by the Planning Board in October 2022. Since then, close neighbors and owners of the six abutting properties have enlisted counsel—Kristin Collins of the firm Preti Flaherty—in an effort to repeal the project, as they are universally opposed to it for reasons both collective and individual.
Concerns that have been publicly stated and reported in this paper include the size and scope of the project, potential damage to the environment, archaeological disturbances, noise and chemical pollution, logistical challenges, including storm drainage, and lack of transparency on the part of SolAmerica, among other things.
Several abutters, nearby neighbors and Hurvitt and Collins have all said that the project never would have passed had it not been for a language loophole in the ordinance and, therefore, the ultimate acceptance of the project was won in a manner that Hurvitt has categorized as disingenuous.
In a letter to the select board dated November 18, Collins stated: “All involved in this legislation agree the intent was to not allow a project like the one just approved. But now, one has been approved…It is simply unfair for this neighborhood to be left to suffer the consequences of a poorly worded ordinance.”
Limited testimony, myriad concerns
While several abutters and neighbors, including Dana Leighton, John Bates and Chris Brumfield, have asserted that they never received notification from the town, their attendance at past meetings was taken as evidence of their knowledge of the project and they were consequently not allowed to testify. (They have all said that they learned of SolAmerica’s plan by word-of-mouth from other neighbors and never through any town-issued or certified letters.) Only three abutters, those who had never attended any prior meeting or hearings and did not receive notification, were permitted to give “limited testimony” at the January 11 hearing.
In addition to Rand, abutters Mary Glassanos and George Crampton spoke. After saying that news of the project left her “absolutely stunned” and that SolAmerica had “latched on” “aggressively and disrespectfully” to the South Street location for their facility, Glassanos, who has lived in Blue Hill for 19 years, listed the many animals and other species that could be adversely affected by the solar farm.
She spoke of the detriment involved in clear cutting, of the installation of chainlink fences and barbed wire, of drainage issues and water mitigation in and around the property. While in favor of renewable energy, Glassanos said that with regard to this project, “we would be remiss to ignore the red flags.”
Crampton then said that SolAmerica is on an “endless quest for profit” and that, “other than hairsplitting wording,” the ordinance was clear in its intent.
When offered the floor for rebuttal, counsel for SolAmerica, Stephen Wagner of Rudman Winchell, said that it was “highly unusual to have any reconsiderations this late in the process” and that “we think you made a sound and reasonable decision” in approving the project.
Citizen’s petition for change of ordinance wording
As for the ordinance’s clarity, abutters and neighbors, together with Collins, have submitted a petition to the town seeking to have the language in the ordinance changed and to make that change be retroactively effective.
“If it’s a valid petition with nothing faulty about it, there is no Select Board decision to be made—we have to put it to the voters, as required, at the next town meeting,” said select board member Scott Miller.
The petition has been notarized and is being reviewed by the town now, according to Leighton.
Updated materials required
At the hearing’s outset, Dixon had reviewed the limitations of the Planning Board: “This board does not have the authority to go back and reconsider the issue,” she said.
Hurvitt affirmed that this is true; however, issues within the application can be reviewed and called into question. And, some were, including the lack of an up-to-date, engineer-approved site plan.
“We don’t have the authority to reconsider the issue of whether this is a permissible use because the Board of Appeals said ‘you have to consider this a permissible use,’” said Hurvitt. “But you can look at other issues.”
Hurvitt cited drainage concerns raised by the abutters and the fact that the original project application was dated February 2022 as reasons for review.
According to Hurvitt, all new/updated materials from the candidate must be received 10 days prior to the February hearing, and they will be available to the public through the town office. Written notice will be sent to all abutters.
As to whether abutters and townspeople will be permitted to speak at the February 8 hearing: “People are allowed to respond, but their responses are limited to the new material being presented,” said Hurvitt, who added that lawyers from all sides (Dixon for the town, Collins for the abutters/neighbors and Wagner for SolAmerica) will again be present.
Code Enforcement Officer Bryce Farnham confirmed that more than 35 people, exclusive of the board and lawyers, attended the January 11 hearing.