Concord zoning board to hear massive solar farm proposal 

  • James Thorpe stands in front of his house next to a cornfield on West Portsmouth Street, looking across the street at where a 10-megawatt solar farm would be placed. The Concord Zoning Board of Adjustment will be deciding Thursday night whether to grant a variance to a developer who is trying to place the solar farm in a residential zoning district. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • James Thorpe stands in front of his house next to a cornfield on West Portsmouth Street, looking across the street at where a 10-megawatt solar farm would be placed. The Concord Zoning Board of Adjustment is set to discuss Thursday night whether to grant a variance to a developer who is trying to place the solar farm in a residential zoning district. Caitlin Andrews / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 2/6/2018 9:03:20 PM

West Portsmouth Street in Concord is just two turns off Interstate 93, but resident James Thorpe says you can barely hear the highway unless the wind is blowing west.

Standing by his mailbox, the highway is barely visible in the winter, and in the summer, when the nearby cornfield has sprouted and the leaves have filled in, the interstate disappears.

Thorpe chose the house he and his daughter Matilda live in because of the quiet, rural nature of the road. A native of Concord, he was drawn to the chance to live close to the city, but not so close as to be impacted by the traffic and the hum of downtown.

“I wanted my own space, some privacy and quiet,” he said. “It has a bit of a country feel to it.”

Main Street seems much farther than 3 miles away; Thorpe often sees coyotes walking through his backyard, or deer. Occasionally, a moose appears across the street, where Brochu Nursery grows some of its trees. In the summer, bald eagles fly overhead on their way to the Merrimack River.

But change may be coming to the area. NextEra Energy Resources, under the title West Portsmouth Street Solar LLC, has chosen the spot across from Thorpe’s house to build its 54-acre solar farm. The farm, should it be approved by the city of Concord, would generate 10 megawatts of power to be sold to the state of Connecticut.

But first, the company needs a variance from the city that would allow them to exceed lot coverage in a residential open space (RO) district. Because there is nothing in the city’s code of ordinances that pertains to large-scale solar projects, the Zoning Board of Adjustment is looking at a precedent-setting case when it hears NextEra Energy’s proposal during its Thursday meeting.

The land

To get an idea of what residential open space zoning is about, look no further than a map of Concord. According to city documents, the majority of the city is an RO-zoned district.

“Open” is the key word here; under the city’s guidelines, only 10 percent of an RO lot can be covered, and that includes elements of a dwelling like driveways and sheds.

Only one single-family dwelling unit is permitted per acre, and agricultural, forestry and low-impact outdoor recreational activities are the only uses permitted within the district.

Uses allowed by special exception include things like a historic property used as a visitor attraction, raising and harvesting fish and other aquaculture products, commercial greenhouses, swine raising, kennels and veterinary hospitals.

And then there are uses allowed by conditional use permits, meaning they wouldn’t be allowed in the district unless certain restrictions are met. Those uses include features like golf courses, tennis courts, swimming pools, campgrounds, municipal and public works facilities, and essential public utilities.

It’s under this last category that city zoning administrator Craig Walker decided to place the solar farm project. He admitted the classification doesn’t quite fit right – after all, the solar farm is privately owned, but it’s the closest the city’s ordinance gets.

“When something like this comes in, that doesn’t have a specific category, I look at it and the nature of the activity and what use is it closely related to,” he said.

Should the ZBA decide to grant NextEra a variance, it would be unlike anything the city has ever seen, Walker said. There are a few solar installations in the city, such as the Unitarian church’s private panels, but those are significantly smaller. NextEra’s solar array would be equivalent to dozens of football fields.

Residents might remember the battle that took place between Doug and Katrina Magee and their neighbors David and Rebecca Biss. The Magees wanted to build a solar array of their own in their backyard on Reserve Place, also an RO-zoned district, closer to their neighbor’s property line than typically allowed.

The zoning board granted approval of the project twice – including after the Bisses brought their appeal to Merrimack County Superior Court. They argued that the solar array didn’t fit in with the area’s rural character, noting that the afternoon sun created a glare that bothered the residents, according to Monitor archives.

Walker acknowledged that approving NextEra could open the door to similar-scale projects, although he also said every zoning case is unique.

And as for whether a solar farm could change the nature of a rural area, he said: “They’re going to have to put in foundations, structures, inverters ... it does change the rural nature of that area.”

New Hampshire’s green neighbor to the west has seen its share of discussion around the impact large solar farms can have on rural areas. Solar projects in Windsor, Bennington and Woodstock, Vt., faced resistance from neighbors, who worried that large-scale projects would hamper their views and damage the land.

It was this last concern that caught the attention of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food & Markets, said Concord’s assistant planner Beth Fenstermacher.

Prior to leaving the agency in 2015, she said there was discussion around whether large solar projects were negatively impacting valuable farm soil. At the time, many arrays were being built on land leased to them by farmers, who made some serious money off the rent, she said.

“We were driving these build sites, and even though the developers would say they were just driving the piles into the land, they had to lay the wires down,” she said. “What they would end up doing is stripping the most valuable topsoils.”

The proposal

Compared to NextEra’s other solar projects in the state, the Concord proposal seems tiny.

Company spokesman Bryan Garner said in an email that the business currently has two projects in the works – a 50-megawatt project in Hinsdale and a 30-megawatt project in Fitzwilliam. A megawatt is estimated to power about 152 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Both are what can be considered utility-scale solar projects, or large projects that generate power that goes into the grid, feeding a utility with energy, according to the Berkeley Energy & Resources Collaborative.

The project’s request for a variance says the land on West Portsmouth Street, which it would be renting from Brochu Nursery, is ideal for its project because of its topography and existing cleared area – in other words, the things that make an RO district appealing for residents makes it appealing for them, as well.

And while the city won’t be able to access the power generated, Garner said the project would benefit Concord because dozens of jobs would be created in the construction of the solar farm. As for the potential tax base impact, Garner wrote that the company isn’t sure yet, but “it will likely create thousands of dollars in additional tax revenue for every megawatt of capacity the project represents.”

NextEra also has to prove a solar farm won’t violate the spirit of the ordinance. The company’s application, written by Aaron Svedlow, states that because the project will be built outside of protected shoreland and wetlands, it will not require the removal of trees and the land underneath the solar panels will remain grassy, a solar farm is as rural a public utility as there can be.

Svedlow goes on to write that the value of surrounding properties will not be diminished because it will not produce fumes, odors or loud noises, and traffic resulting from the project will be light.

Without the variance, the solar farm won’t be viable – to the detriment of everyone involved, Svedlow argues.

“The loss of the Project will result in the loss of benefits to the landowner, the City of Concord, and the capital region,” he writes.

The people

But whether the project will benefit West Portsmouth Street isn’t so clear to some residents.

Thorpe said there’s the aesthetic aspect to think of; replacing trees and fields with panels isn’t quite what he envisioned when he moved into his house seven years ago. The panels are expected to be 7 to 8 feet high, tall enough, he says, to easily obstruct his front-door view.

“When you invest in a house or make a decision to live in an area, you take a lot into consideration,” he said. “Having the panels go in, it would be like taking the choice of where I chose to live away from me.”

But the foremost concern Thorpe has is for his daughter. He said there’s no definitive research about the impacts of living so close to a solar farm the size of NextEra’s proposal, and although he said he’s been told it would have no greater impact than the power lines on his road, he’s not so certain.

“We are going to be guinea pigs, in a sense,” he said.

Former West Portsmouth Street resident Jess Rockwell said she still takes her family to ride bikes on the street because of its flat topography, low traffic volume and rural scenery. She said building a solar farm would permanently change the area’s feel.

“That’s some of the best farmland in Concord,” she said, “that’s why the nursery owns so much land out there. After everything’s been built, it’s not going to be able to return to farmland. ... To undermine the actual zoning for a renewable energy source, that doesn’t seem very green to me.”

The zoning board meets at 7 p.m. Thursday in the city council chambers at 37 Green St.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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