Monday, February 1, 2016
Posted: Sunday, January 31, 2016 11:30 pm | Updated: 11:51 pm, Sun Jan 31, 2016.
This week the Norton Planning Board will - for the second time - take up the question of granting a special permit for two solar farms on land located off Clapp Street. And once again, residents of that quiet residential neighborhood will be out in force, asking planners to deny the application.
As a result, the entire affair will continue to be a textbook example of the struggle local officials face when attempting to balance what is best for the citizens of a community as a whole with the legitimate concerns and wishes of those with a particular interest.
The land in question is an almost 11-acre parcel owned by Wheaton College, an institution in Norton for close to 200 years. Wheaton wants to build two solar farms they will utilize for electricity. The college claims it wants to reduce its "carbon footprint" and become more environmentally friendly, while at the same time acknowledging it will result in significant financial savings.
But neighborhood residents are adamantly opposed, citing disruption of their lives, a loss of desirability to the area and a possible decrease in their property values. And it has become crystal clear over time that there is absolutely nothing the potential developers can do to satisfy them other than give up on the project.
Wheaton and Norton Solar LLC, the group formed to develop the property, have certainly made attempts to mitigate any potential problems.
They have offered neighbors a 30 percent discount on electric costs for the lifetime of the project. They proposed a three-year, $100,000 fund to help offset any potential drop in property values.
They proposed spending close to $200,000 to plant more than 250 18-foot high "mature trees" in order to screen the solar panels from being visible from the road or the first floor of Clapp Street homes. And they submitted to an independent third-party review to determine if their mitigation proposals would work.
Residents were not impressed.
Some did not believe the screening would be adequate. They reiterated the property value argument. They claimed it would alter the character of the neighborhood. One neighbor even went so far as to say the planting of the trees for screening purposes could create "an evergreen prison on our street".
No one is disputing the right of neighbors to defend their homes and families. They have every right to make their feelings known. And planning board members have a weighty responsibility to make sure they are heard, taken seriously and given proper consideration.
But the responsibility of local officials does not end with the abutters and neighbors. They have an equal obligation to the rest of the citizens in town to approve projects that contribute to the public good and make Norton a stronger community. And there is much evidence this proposal does just that.
The solar parks would generate serious new tax revenues. They would provide a new and cheaper power source for part of the town. They represent an investment in clean energy.
The project would be low-impact when it comes to traffic, much less than a retail or industrial use. It would even create far less traffic than allowing residential homes to be built on the land.
Residential use would add to the school system and the public safety burden, generating more in expenses than revenue for a town facing financial difficulties in the years ahead.
Clapp Street residents have a right to be concerned. But we don't all get to pick and choose what happens around us.
Is everyone in town guaranteed a scenic view from their second floor? Do residents of a neighborhood get virtual veto power over projects? Can the planting of trees be reasonably considered an "evergreen prison"?
The original planning board vote was 4-2 in favor, but it failed because a "super majority" of five votes is required. Wheaton appealed the decision in court, and it was referred back to the board.
Now Norton officials have a second chance to consider an environmentally friendly, revenue-producing project from a responsible, well-financed party willing to offer more-than-reasonable mitigation.
Let's hope they properly protect the Clapp Street residents while doing what is best for the whole community.
Or as a famous coach would say - "Do their jobs".
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.