Conservation Commission Deems Application For Large Scale Solar Project Incomplete

Solar farm at Brookhave National Lab on Long Island. Photo: Flckr.com (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Conservation Commission, November 10, 2021

By Maura Keene

The meeting was held on Zoom and was recorded.

Present
Jenn Fair (Chair), Lawrence Ambs, Ana Devlin Gauthier, LeRoy Gaynor, and Laura Pagliarulo. Absent: Fletcher Clark

Staff: Erin Jacques, Wetlands Administrator; Dave Ziomek, Director of Conservation and Development

Proposed 45-Acre Solar Farm In Woodlands Off Shutesbury Road
This meeting was a continuation of the public hearing started on October 27  (look here and here) regarding a proposal by the company TRC for ASD Shutesbury Solar LLC to construct a 45-acre solar installation in the WD Cowls forestland to the south of Shutesbury Road. Although much of the information requested by the Conservation Commission was not yet gathered by the applicant, not all of the residents in attendance were able to voice their questions and concerns at the previous meeting, so the TRC representatives Maria Firstenberg and Andrew Chabot were asked to return to respond to these concerns.

Chair Jenn Fair prefaced the discussion by saying that the jurisdiction of the Conservation Commission is to protect water resources and to uphold the wetlands protection laws of the town and the Commonwealth. The Commission cannot rule on the value of the project to the environment as a whole or on the advisability of building solar projects on forested land.

The Adams Brook runs near or through the site, so run-off from the project is a concern. There also has been no soil evaluation or mapping of the groundwater table. A preliminary wetlands delineation was done by a third-party last spring and summer, but much information is missing despite the 400-page report filed by TRC. Wetlands Administrator Erin Jacques proposed that TRC come back before the Commission in 30 days with information on 12 areas of concern to the Commission.

Firstenberg said that the 30-day deadline would be hard to meet, since it may take some time to get a contractor to the site for soil sampling, and then the samples must be analyzed. She requested a longer timeline to present that data, but agreed to have the other information requested available two weeks before the December 8 Conservation Commission meeting. 

In response, Fair said that the Commission doesn’t want to do a piecemeal review of the proposal. She said that the soil evaluation affects many other factors, so she would like to have all the information before making an assessment of the project. She added that stormwater management is also a primary factor in this application, so soil and groundwater information are crucial.

Jacques said that this due diligence should have been completed before the application was submitted. As is, it is an incomplete application, she said. The Conservation Commission prefers to have all the information before it makes a determination. She suggested that the Commission proceed with a motion requiring the report within 30 days and then see how much information is presented, or, if necessary, the applicant could withdraw the application and resubmit it with the necessary information.

Public Comment
Several members of the public spoke in regard to this project. Jack Hirsch said that this is an industrial project in a residential area, so is unsuitable for the site. Fair replied that the Zoning Board of Appeals will determine if the project is appropriate. Robert Mullen voiced concern about measures to protect wildlife and wondered if any rare species are present. Firstenberg said that there is a six-inch gap under the fence surrounding the project which would permit the movement of small animals. Concerns about other species are included in the additional information requested by the Conservation Commission.

Stuart Shulman and Michael Lipinski objected to discussing the project based on incomplete data. The Conservation Commission voted to continue the hearing until December 8, when hopefully they will be provided with the information requested. Ana Devlin Gauthier, newly elected District 5 councilor, noted that if the determination is not made by the end of the year, there may not be a quorum of commissioners able to vote on it, as she will no longer be on the commission and Fletcher Clark was not at this hearing.

Plans For UMass Dorms Discussed
UMass intends to build new undergraduate and graduate housing on the site of the Lincoln apartments and the parking lot on Massachusetts Avenue across from the Fine Arts Center. The Tan Brook runs through the area, so the Conservation Commission evaluated the plans to protect the brook. The Tan Brook had been designated an intermittent stream in January 2020, but has now been determined to be permanent. However, the 2020 status is used for this project.

Engineers Jared Gentilucci and Brittney Veeck of Nitsch Engineering represented the developer, Balfour Development. They pointed out that current building plans decrease the amount of pavement at the site and should decrease the amount of runoff into the brook by 20%. The culvert draining into the brook will be rerouted around the new buildings.

The Conservation Commission requested reestablishment of a 30-foot natural buffer zone near the brook after construction is completed and to assure no volume changes in run-off. Veeck said that the run-off will be minimized by the increase in permeable surface at the site.

Residents Freddie Manning and Edwin Gentzler noted significant erosion around the culverts and that one of the drainage pipes is frequently blocked. The engineers noted that the larger drainage pipe is being moved and replaced.

The hearing will be continued on December 8.

Trail Maintenance Reports
Land Manager Brad Bordewieck and Brendan Kelley gave the Commission a pictorial report on the efforts of the Conservation Department’s efforts to maintain the hiking trails in Amherst. They noted the “crazy storm damage” to trees over the past year. The department has cleared many fallen trees in the Amherst Woods area, around Puffers Pond, and on Mount Pollux. They have replaced the bog bridges on the Robert Frost Trail, the KC trail, and the Brickyard Trail and widened the trail at the Wentworth Conservation area. They also replaced some of the cribbing at the Puffers Pond beach and added new beach sand. In the future, they hope to repair the boardwalk at Larch Hill and to repair the bridge across the road from Puffer’s Pond. They are continuing to rebuild the dam and work on erosion control at the Marquardt Pond.

New Flood Plain Maps Available
Hilda Greenbaum noted that the new flood plain maps may impact the proposed development of the Eruptor project in North Amherst. The hearing on that project was continued to December 8, because a peer reviewer asked for some revisions. Jacques did not think the new boundaries for the flood plains had changed very much, but she will incorporate any changes in the evaluation of the project.

The meeting adjourned at 9:30 p.m.

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