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Shirley solar farm hearing closed; board to vote Oct. 27

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SHIRLEY — The Planning Board on Wednesday night held part two of a public hearing that drew much interest and a few sparks when it opened on Sept. 30.

At issue was whether to grant a special permit sought by Solar City to build and operate a solar array on two parcels of land off Patterson Road.

There was some contention last time around, including worries about the lithium batteries to be installed on site as backup — the same batteries used in Tesla electric cars — and whether there were adequate safety procedures in place, with training for emergency responders.

When the issue came up at the second hearing, the engineer working on the project, Benjamin Osgood of TTI Environmental, Inc., again spelled out the protocols, which include remote monitoring and automatic and manual system shut-offs. In addition, the battery manufacturer has agreed to provide on-site emergency training, he said.

Planning Board Chairman Jonathan Greeno sketched a catastrophic scenario. Say a truck “barreling through the woods” hits one of the batteries and starts a fire. Then what? Douse it with water, which will put out the fire and cool down the battery, Osgood said, reiterating what the Solar City project manager said last time.

A legal point raised at the last hearing has apparently been settled.

Citing Chapter 97 in state law, resident Betsy Colburn Mirkovic had questioned whether the solar facility could be built on part of the property donated to the town as conservation land.

The Conservation Commission was looking into that, she was told, and had asked town counsel to weigh in. At the recent session, following the ConsCom’s review of the project the previous night, Greeno said the attorney had rendered his opinion, stating that Chapter 97 did not apply in this case.

Mirkovic was not convinced. “Three different environmental lawyers disagree with town counsel,” she said.

Greeno said he’d prefer to take town counsel’s word for it, however.

Mirkovic didn’t argue the point but moved on to other concerns, such as the impact of the solar farm construction and plans to drill beneath a brook to install a drainage conduit.

Osgood said everything would be done by the book and as for the conduit, it would be narrow and installed 12 feet below the brook, meeting DEP requirements.

Retired Council on Aging Director John Oelfke, a former Planning Board member who serves on the Devens Enterprise Commission, suggested that the current board take a look at the list of 32 conditions DEC had attached to its permit for a solar farm on Hazen Road that serves Devens that included contact information on file in case of shut-downs and mandatory site cleanup and equipment removal if the facility shuts down. One condition prohibited using solar panels containing cadmium, a potentially toxic heavy metal.

There was some discussion as to whether such panels are in use any more, but Oelfke argued that including the condition couldn’t hurt, if only as “just in case” insurance. Osgood said he had no objections. Neither did Solar City Senior Permit Coordinator Bill Allen, although neither one of them knew whether the company used cadmium batteries.

Greeno liked the idea of incorporating some of the DEC conditions into those the Planning Board would attach to this permit, if it’s granted, he said, given that the projects were similar. Wording would need to be changed, though, he said.

Despite Oelfke’s suggestion to continue the hearing, Greeno favored closing it and a motion to do so passed. The board agreed that a document listing all of the conditions should be prepared for review at the next posted public meeting on Oct. 27. In the meantime, once the document is good to go, it would be sent to the applicant, he said.

With the conditions laid out, the board would discuss and vote on the special permit application next time, he said. “There are a lot of moving parts,” he explained.

The two parcels — 21 and 21 Rear Patterson Road — are owned by the town and the Water District, respectively. Power generated by the 2.5 megawatt facility is destined for National Grid, which has a contract with Solar City.

The Town of Shirley and the Water District will make money on the deal via a long term lease and payments in lieu of taxes over the 20-year lease period.

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