Solar Plan for Intervale Farm in Westhampton Gets Mixed Reviews

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 10, 2016, by Chris Lindahl

Foes and supporters of a proposed 2-acre solar array at Intervale Farm weighed in at a Planning Board meeting Tuesday, but the board did not make a final decision after nearly two hours of discussion.

The public hearing, attended by some 40 people, on the 650-kilowatt array proposed by W.H. Bennett Inc. will continue Sept. 20, at 7:30 p.m., with the hope that in the interim town counsel for the town will clear up questions raised about how the application should be filed.

And an informational meeting is scheduled Sept. 13 in Town Hall, also at 7:30 p.m.

W.H. Bennett, an electrical and energy contracting company based on Martha’s Vineyard, hopes to build the array on land leased from the Tracy family at Intervale. It would be placed 663 feet off the west side of South Road on a hillside, according to Richard Tracy.

The solar panels would not be visible when driving north on South Road and would be partly visible when driving south. The only home with a view of the panels would be Tracy’s own, he said.

Tracy said the project would help keep his farm viable because it would get money from some of the electricity sold from the panels. The project would allow him to keep the land for farming, as sheep would be able to continue grazing underneath the panels, which are installed only with removable stakes.

It would also allow people who might otherwise not be able to install their own solar panels take advantage of green energy through the net metering program.

“It emits no chemicals, no smell, there’s no noise,” Tracy said. “All it does is produce electricity.”

But some residents, led by Ginny Curtis of North Road, raised concerns about the process by which the project is being considered. Others worried about the impact that a possible deluge of future solar arrays would have on the rural character of the town.

Westhampton has not implemented specific zoning regulations pertaining to solar arrays. That means that the Planning Board must consider the proposal under existing zoning rules. W.H. Bennett filed the application under a rule for utility substations.

Curtis disagrees with that method of filing and said that the town ought to have a discussion about how it wants to handle solar arrays before such proposals are considered. That would allow residents to decide how set back from property lines such projects would be permitted, among other considerations.

Blandford, she said, recently had a special Town Meeting to work out such considerations.

The state in 2014 created a set of model solar regulations for towns to consider adopting.

William Bennett, owner of W.H. Bennett, Tracy and other supporters of the project said that this project would be allowed under those regulations – and in towns where other solar regulations are on the books.

“There’s nothing in there that would interfere or inhibit what we’re proposing,” Tracy said.

Curtis also voiced concern about the Fire Department having a safety protocol in place to deal with the large solar project. Assistant Chief Steve Holt said that he came to talk to Bennett about that. Bennett agreed to train the department on how to deal with the array in emergencies.

But the planned array is particularly safe, especially compared to older systems, Bennett said.

The entire system can be shut down with the flip of an accessible switch and when the power goes out in the local power grid, the system shuts down immediately, he said.

Compare that to older systems, in which Bennett said it’s possible to weld using two wires.

Stephen St. Marie, an electrician who lives on Easthampton Road who has worked on such solar installations, agreed that the system is very safe.

Resident Chris Devine said he’s concerned about how private solar systems might affect the rural character of the town. Many projects he’s seen are built on state land or existing commercial property, he said.

Patricia Lewis of Chesterfield Road spoke in favor of the project. She conjured up an image of a truly rural life when she moved to town in 1977 — and how it’s changed since.

“I had no electricity at all, for eight years … or running water,” she said. “Just this last week we finished putting a solar array on the terraces in front of my cabin. I wish I had waited. It seems like such a good idea for this kind of program for people can’t afford to build their own solar array or don’t have the land to do it.”