Rochester residents oppose solar farm in town's center

Jul 7, 2015

The possibility of a solar farm in the heart of Rochester’s historic district has riled abutters of the property and members of the Historic District Commission.

“I’m not opposed to solar energy in Rochester per se,” said Debra Ladd, a former chair of the commission. “The historic district in Rochester…is a very small district, and it’s a very precious district. We’ve taken great pains to preserve it.”

Twelve people attended the Selectmen’s July 6 meeting to oppose a 10-acre commercial solar facility on the former Gibbs dairy farm. The site abuts the First Parish Cemetery, and it is located between New Bedford Road and Dexter Land.

While Selectmen shared the audience’s concerns, members said the Planning Board and Conservation Commission are tasked with approving or denying the project.

“This won’t come before the Board of Selectmen,” Chair Richard Nunes said. “In my opinion, this is a bad location. I’ve heard from numerous people who ask, 'why that site? Could you have put this in a worse location?'”

In January, representatives from the Boston-based company NextSun Energy met informally with the Historic District Commission

At the time, commission member Gloria Vincent said the board had several questions regarding the project, but didn't receive a response.

“We never got any answers,” Vincent said.

The group appeared before Selectmen following a pre-submission conference between the Planning Board and NextSun Energy. Project development manager Amelia Tracy met with the Planning Board on June 23 to discuss the solar farm.

Tracy had said plans included felling trees higher than 20 feet near the facility to prevent shadows on the array. Vincent said they never received a clear answer on how the array would be hidden from view.

Matthew Monteiro said that while the facility would be built on land zoned commercial, the surrounding property is not.

“I know there are four abutters or more. It’s an island of commercial in a residential area,” Monteiro said.

The historic district is an area that encompasses three square miles in the center of town. Buildings such as Plumb Library, the First Congregational Church and Town Hall are all located in the area.

Ladd and Vincent told Selectmen there is a chance the historic designation may afford the town some protection.

According to Vincent, there are currently no solar arrays located within a historic district in Massachusetts.

“So, that’s a good precedent,” said Selectman Naida Parker.

Selectman Brad Morse noted residents recently passed a solar bylaw that gives the Planning Board some authority in regulating how projects are built.

He and Nunes said a project constructed on the New Bedford Waterworks property was well screened from neighbors, which the Planning Board insisted upon.

Town Administrator Mike McCue said legal counsel will be provided to the Planning Board, Conservation Commission and the Historic District Commission to navigate the application process.

“There are things we need to do as a town to make sure everything is done within the confines of the law,” McCue said. “It’s my understanding that solar applications have been given special dispensation similar to hospitals or educational facilities.”

The residents thanked Selectmen for the support.

“When I’m asked where do I live and I say I live in Rochester, the comment that follows is that Rochester is such a beautiful, little town,” Ladd said. “I don’t ever want to stop hearing that.”

The next meeting of the Planning Board is July 14 at 7 p.m. in Town Hall. It’s not known yet if NextSun Energy will attend.