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Solar City shrinks Patterson Road project in Shirley

Solar City Project Manager Dylan Vernal faced a crowd of project opponents at the recent Planning Board meeting but the board ultimately granted the company’s request to modify the project without having to file a new application.

SHIRLEY — The proposed solar-farm project slated for two adjoining parcels of public land off Patterson Road that was previously and separately approved with conditions by the Planning Board and the Conservation Commission has been downsized.

The new plan shrinks by half a megawatt the generation capacity of the envisioned facility to be constructed by California-based developer Solar City for National Grid, which is leasing the land from the town and the Water District, respectively.

The revised plan Solar City Project Manager Dylan Vernal submitted to the Planning Board Wednesday night also expands the riverfront buffer zone from 100 to 200 feet, saving about 100 trees. But perhaps the most significant alteration in the new version is that it omits a key component the Conservation Commission was concerned about: drilling under Morse Brook.

Originally, the project plan called for linking power lines between the solar-panel arrays via an underground conduit installed beneath Morse Brook, which crosses the two properties. Now, each parcel will connect independently to the power grid, so it’s not necessary to bore under the brook, Vernal explained.

Ironically, these self-imposed concessions, which Vernal acknowledged were sparked mostly by citizens’ pushback and geared to avoid protracted project delays, prompted a roomful of opponents to argue the only issue the Planning Board could address: Whether changes Solar City was asking for constituted a minor or a major modification to the original plan.

Major modifications would require Solar City to submit a new application and go through the permit process again while minor modifications do not trigger a redo.

The new plan might be “relatively better,” said Lawton Road resident Jim Yokem, but it could also be viewed as “less bad.” His hope was that the project would be put on hold while the lawsuit a group of citizens has filed in Land Court to halt the project is resolved.

The board has no authority to do that, acting Chairman Tim Bresnahan said, but it would be a matter to take up with the zoning-enforcement officer.

For now, however, work has stopped.

With a stop-work order that would rescind a previously issued building permit currently being reviewed by town counsel, no building has begun on the parcel in question, Vernal said, although the land has been cleared of trees and stumps.

But members of the citizens group opposing the project who attended the meeting were not satisfied with that answer.

Despite a state law that bypasses local zoning to allow solar farms to be built on residentially zoned property and the board’s assurance that professionals hired to assess the project had determined it would not harm the land or the water, they believe that a commercial area would be better suited for a business such as a solar farm and that town boards should act accordingly.

Besides, they argued, the town’s drinking water is too precious to risk.

“That’s our land, our water,” said Marie Elwyn, referring to town wells on one of the parcels, owned by the Water District. Both parcels are zoned rural/residential.

If the current court case favors their view and halts the project the company has proceeded with at its own risk thus far while facing appeals in process and a pending lawsuit, would Solar City restore the land? Center Road resident Lee Mirkovic asked.

Vernal said he could not answer that “hypothetical” question.

Bresnahan was receptive to the citizens’ concerns and Mirkovic thanked him for that. But at some point he said the discussion had strayed off topic to address issues that were beyond the Planning Board’s purview.

The board’s job was to assess Solar City’s request to change the plan and determine if it was a major change. Members decided it was not. The changes were accepted as “minor modifications” to the previously approved plan, with no further action necessary.