Residents and Developer Expected to Go to Court Over Proposed Solar Project in Hatfield, Mass.

Solar developers can find what they need in western Massachusetts: open land, unobstructed by buildings and trees, soaking up the sun’s energy. More than a dozen big projects have either been built,  or are proposed for the region. But like wind turbines, some solar projects are opposed by people who don’t want to live near them. The latest controversy is in Hatfield, a small town that was an early participant in the state’s green energy incentives.

 

In Hatfield, where nearly a third of the land is farmed, houses with generous lawns hug farm fields along the Connecticut River. Kathleen Zeamer moved here with her partner, 2 ½ years ago, because of the open space.

 

We love the landscape, we like being close to things like Northampton and yet we could have a sort of rural experience for our lives.”

 

The couple owns more than an acre, next to wetlands, that border a field owned by a farmer.  Deer roam here along with coyote and fox. But last spring a neighbor told them about a proposal to build a solar facility on the field.

 

“We were like, ‘Solar? We like solar.’ It’s not a big deal to us.”

 

Zeamer, who is retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says, at first, she didn’t pay attention. Until her neighbor came back again.

 

“She says, ‘I don’t think you understand the magnitude of the project’.

 

The solar farm would have 8,276 solar panels mounted on posts in the ground on two fields covering about 14 acres. Walking through the rain, Zeamer points out the site behind her property.

 

 

“Right  over this mounds of leaves. In fact, you see the field right there? There will be solar panels right there! You can see it through the shrubbery.”

 

That land is owned by Szawlowski Realty. The Szawlowski family owns a potato farm, the  biggest in New England.

 

A building permit has already been issued for the project. Zeamer  and 19 other residents are afraid a solar facility could reduce the value of their properties. They’re suing the town and the landowner to get it relocated.  They point to a town bylaw that they say restricts renewable projects to land zoned for industrial use. Another plaintiff is Stan Pitchko Jr, whose family goes back four generations in Hatfield.

 

“We’re all proponents of solar. It’s the right thing to do. It’s just the wrong location.”

 

Pitchko, who is the Chair of Hatfield’s Board of Assessors, is walking behind his house to the proposed site of the solar farm. An old tobacco barn, next to one of the fields, is a testament to the agricultural roots of this town. Pitchko says the project doesn’t belong in an area zoned for rural and residential use. 

 

“I can’t believe that you would not have some type of heat being generated out in that field that could potentially affect all of us. And then in regards to a crack or a broken panel and it’s not recognized right away. Is there going to br anything that leaks on the ground. What if it starts on fire?”

 

“These things are very safe. No one has ever been harmed by solar installations.”

 

That’s Brian Morrissey Director of Solar Projects for Citizens Energy, a Boston-based nonprofit. Citizens provides affordable heating oil for low-income residents. But it also owns a for-profit subsidiary which is proposing the solar facility in Hatfield. The company is building five other solar projects including ones in Whately, Agawam and Holyoke. And it has four more planned, including one in Chicopee. Morrissey says the company will remove the solar panels in Hatfield after about 25 years.

 

“We do have an agreement with the landowner. That it’s basically our obligation. upon when our lease expires, that we come in and remove all this equipment and return the land to its agricultural state.”

 

But opponents have peppered the town’s roads with lawn signs saying “No Solar Power Plants in Residential Neighborhoods!” and “Protect Our Rural Character”

 

Protect Hatfield from what?”

 

That’s Christopher Smith, a member of Hatfield’s Energy Committee who has lived here for more than three decades. Smith says the project is good for Hatfield, in part because it will generate tax revenues without the costs associated with housing development.

 

“Every dollar you get  from a solar farm is a dollar of net revenue because it demands no services at all. It is the best neighbor you can have next to open space.”

 

On Darryl Williams’ farm in Hatfield the calves are ready to be fed. Williams, who milks one hundred Holsteins, is also on the town’s energy committee. He says the temporary nature of the solar project is better for Hatfield than housing development—something farmers consider.

 

“If you ever put houses there it’s never farmed again. So I think this at least gives the chance for farming. I would not advocate for solar on some of the highest producing land.”

 

Farmland advocates like Cris Coffin of American Farmland Trust say there may be even better places than farm fields for solar projects.

 

“It is possible to put them in the built landscape. Why can’t we do more to look at parking lots, to places that already do not have the irreplace-ability of our best farmland?”

 

But it costs less to build on a farm field because it’s already open and there’s little to clear away.  It’s still unclear how much tax revenue the town of Hatfield stands to gain from the project

 

Opponents are proposing a bylaw to keep solar projects on land zoned for industrial use. Other towns in the region are also crafting bylaws to help guide where solar farms are built. Without them state law opens the door to solar without clear restrictions. Meanwhile, the two presumably “green” proponents in Hatfield will be duking it out in the court room.