FITCHBURG — The proposal for 46-acre solar panel field off Shea Street was first presented to the city at a Conservation Commission meeting Wednesday evening. However, the project was received with strong opposition from neighbors and officials that say it will cause even more flooding in an area that has still not recovered from a previous deluge roughly a decade ago.
On behalf of the developer, Jamie Rheault, project manager at Haley Ward, presented the details of the large solar project to be built on an 118-acre lot of land owned by Oak Hill Country Club. The facility will include over 13,000 ground-mounted solar panels that will be surrounded by a 7-foot-high chain link fence.
Addressing what Renault called the “elephant in the room,” he said that they were well aware of the past flooding in the Shea Street area and have taken special care to plan for that situation. He said they are currently looking to expand the drainage infrastructure recently created in the area to address the problem.
But residents don’t think that will be enough and are afraid that this project will be like many that came before it. Ward 3 City Councilor Andrew Couture was the first to speak during the meeting after Renault.
“I’ve come here to speak against…vehemently against this project for my constituents on Shea Street and the adjoining streets,” said Couture, receiving applause from the roughly two dozen residents that attended. “I have gotten dozens of emails, dozens of phone calls against this project and I, for one, am 100% against this.”
Couture said that they’ve seen many different solar projects come and fail because flooding continues to come up as a major concern.
“We cannot have this anymore. Shea Street has always had a problem with flooding,” said Couture, noting the fact that even Renault mentioned the federal funding had been required in the past. “Surprisingly, he did mention that almost a decade ago the city was able to obtain FEMA funding for a project in order to mitigate the flooding on Shea Street. Although it was a help, it was not 100% successful.”
During his initial presentation, Renault explained how building the large field of solar panels will require two local permitting processes; one from the Conservation Commission for constructing in the buffer zone and another for the special permit and site plan approval that is required from the Planning Board, which is expected to take up the issue later in August.
Renault spoke specifically about wetlands protection and what specific changes they intend to make inside the wetland buffer zones. Cities and towns use wetland buffer zones to tightly control development close to wetlands to protect the ecologically-important areas.
“No [solar] panels, no utilities are in the buffer zone,” said Renault. “We’re going to be cutting some trees [in the buffer zone] and we are going to be leaving the stumps and we are going to be leaving the ground cover. So we’re here…to cut trees. That’s all we’re going to be doing in the buffer zone itself.”
Renault said that solar panel construction is an accepted use in regard to the zoning of the area.
The Conservation Commission voted unanimously to continue the issue to their September 6 meeting as the developers of the project continue to work on the plans and take the next steps in the permitting process.