SHIRLEY -- Solar arrays on municipally-owned land have some residents seeing red. The installations mean more greenbacks for the town coffers and green energy for the grid, but opponents see the cost as high.
"I have nothing against solar," said Barbara Yocum. Rather than use open land, the arrays could be elsewhere such as the airport or on top of buildings, she suggested.
"The bottom line is don't cut down forests," she said. "Don't trade one resource for another."
A new array on 21 and 21R Patterson Road is the most recent focus of attention. Two citizens petitions on the May 15 Town Meeting warrant, filed by Yocum, ask the town to "change the care, custody, and control" of the lots to private industrial solar and to give the selectmen authority to lease them.
A yes vote would mean the lease needs to be renegotiated to include environmental protections for the drinking water, Yocum wrote in an email. A no vote means that Solar City would need to remove their equipment and restore the land to its previous condition.
The developer installed the equipment at its own risk, she said.
The land was leased to Solar City and the panels are installed, ready to be switched on. The lots are part of the land that surround and protect a town well in an adjacent parcel.
The well could be compromised by rainwater running off the panels, Yocum said. Acid and nitrates might not be filtered out with some of the tree cover gone.
Proponents of the solar fields tout the economic impact to the town while disputing the fears and questioning the accuracy of the petitions.
Shirley can expect to see $314,412.71 in yearly income from leases and taxes for six arrays on town- and water district-owned land, and taxes on two privately-owned arrays, said former Energy Committee Chairman Bryan Dumont.
He maintains that the petitions affecting the newest installation can only be advisory.
In addition, the property descriptions in the articles are mixed up, Dumont wrote in an email.
The development went through all required permitting at the local level and meets or exceeds state requirements, he said. The project has approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection and Drinking Water Division and the National Heritage and Endangered Species Program, Dumont wrote.
Conditions imposed by the DEP and local boards were met, he said. He provided copies of the testing results and approval from the state DEP.
The DEP did not hear an appeal after the portion of the installation to be built in the wetlands buffer zone was moved, he said. An appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals was denied.
Both sides agree that one lot was given to the town for protection of water resources. The deed dated 1990 goes on to say "and other compatible purposes including conservation and recreation as approved and authorized by the voters ..."
Using the land for solar changes its use and requires a two-thirds vote and Town Meeting, according to a letter sent by Yocum and her husband Jim Yocum to the selectmen dated April 3.
The restriction was intended to allow the town to use the land for any proper and lawful purpose as long as it protects the water resources, counters a 2015 letter from previous owner J&A Realty Trust that Dumont supplied.
Article 97 protection does not kick in because the property was acquired for more than one use, according to an October 2015 letter from Town Counsel KP Law. The article in the state constitution limits use of lands acquired for conservation purposes.
The SolarCity installations are part of a National Grid pilot program, Dumont said. In 19 installations across the state, including these two in Shirley and one in Ayer, the company is studying how to place the panels for maximum solar collection and how to store the power until it is needed.
Electricity that is generated but not used, is lost, Dumont said. SolarCity, which merged with Tesla, will use Tesla Energy Storage Units, telephone booth-sized, steel-clad battery arrays.
The units will have leak detection sensors and sit on cement pads with lips tall enough to hold all of the contents should all the safety methods fail, Dumont said. Most of the material evaporates when it hits the air and fire can be extinguished with water.
A Land Court Case was filed over a year ago, Town Administrator Patrice Garvin confirmed in an email.
In May 2016, six of the plaintiffs, including the man whose name is used in the litigation, filed a motion to be dismissed as plaintiffs.
In March, the Attorney General approved "Renewable Energy By-law" passed at the Special Town Meeting in the fall. The state office included several comments and suggestions about the article.
On April 3, selectmen voted to take no action on an agenda item to "Authorize Solar City Letter Regarding Citizens Petition." The board did not sign the letter, Rico Cappucci, chairman of the Board of Selectmen said during the meeting. He did not disclose the contents.
Follow Anne O'Connor on Twitter @a1oconnor.