Edgartown 20-acre solar project is unlikely to face MVC review

The location of the six acre parcel on Katama Farm where the town plans to erect one of three solar arrays. — Photo courtesy of Google maps

In July, Edgartown selectmen signed off on an ambitious three-site utility scale solar energy project town leaders expect will generate enough solar electricity to power all town buildings, and provide excess power to sell.

One of three arrays of solar panels would be planted on about six acres of prime, agricultural land, part of the 188-acre, town-owned Katama Farm, currently leased to the nonprofit Farm Institute.

A second solar development site is off Pennywise Path behind the Morgan Woods housing development. The third site is between Edgewood Drive and Briarwood Drive near a town well.

The Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative (CVEC), a nonprofit municipal group, would be responsible for the project. CVEC has signed a similar agreement with Tisbury.

Throughout discussion of the solar project and its benefits, one question that has generated little discussion is whether the project would be subject to review by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC), the Island’s powerful regional permitting and planning body as a development of regional interest (DRI).

Edgartown selectmen, who have clashed with the MVC repeatedly over budget and jurisdictional issues, forcefully oppose MVC review of the solar project. They insist it will not be referred to the regional planning and regulating authority by any Edgartown board or official.

“It’s not going,” selectman Michael Donaroma said flatly when asked by a Times reporter.

Harvesting rays

Edgartown expects to save more than $8 million over the 20-year life cycle of the clean energy development. The decision to utilize Katama Farm was made because its topography favors the project, and the arrays require at least six acres of land.

Rows of solar panels would be mounted on low support structures. Vegetation and berms would be used to screen them from view.

The decision to use available farmland for energy production comes against a backdrop of efforts by conservation organizations and farm groups to find some means to acquire Thimble Farm in Oak Bluffs, now on the market, and use it for future agricultural use and housing for farm workers.

As part of its agreement to lease town farmland to the Farm Institute, Edgartown reserved the right to utilize a 20-acre parcel bordering Mattekesett Way and Aero Avenue, a dirt road that runs along the Katama airfield, for its own use. The Farm Institute currently uses it as pasture land.

The town has agreed to site the solar array on six of the 20 acres, and give up its rights to use the other 14 acres, so that land can be used for crops, grazing, or any other agricultural use.

No size fits all DRIs

In the past, the MVC has reviewed as a DRI a bakery adjacent to a major market and a pizza shop located on a commercial thoroughfare in Tisbury, a girl scout camp off Middle Road in Chilmark and a function hall in the Oak Bluffs business district. Repeatedly, town officials and applicants have questioned the application of the DRI label to projects they considered of little regional impact.

In June, the MVC held a public hearing on whether to review the Goodale Construction Company’s sand pit as a DRI despite the fact that no permit application was before the commission.

On first glance, it would appear that the Edgartown solar project would come under MVC review, which would include public hearings. In recent years, the MVC has spent considerable time on alternative energy production.

In 2009, the MVC declared a moratorium on both land-based and offshore wind power development, and spent more than a year formulating a lengthy report with proposed regulations. However, according to MVC officials and local town representatives, the solar project will trigger no MVC review.

The DRI checklist is a complex list of conditions for proposed development that building officials and other town officials use to determine if a project warrants MVC review. In some cases, review is mandatory; in others, called concurrence reviews, the commission may consider a referral and choose whether to review it or not.

In the case of a discretionary referral, any municipal agency in the town where the development is located, the board of selectmen of another town, or the Dukes County Commissioners could refer the project, for any reason. The MVC is required by law to hold a public hearing and then decide whether or not to review a project.

In Tisbury, selectmen Monday signed a power purchase with CVEC to erect a solar array on the town’s capped landfill near the Park and Ride lot off State Road.

Peter Cabana, an elected Tisbury member of the MVC, said he recommended to the town’s planning board that the solar project be referred to the commission for DRI review.

“The only reason I think this should be reviewed by the MVC is because of the interconnection requirements required by NSTAR for each of these facilities,” Mr. Cabana said. “That interconnection could be a very short distance or a long distance, and if it’s a long distance, it might be going over other people’s property. If there’s going to be anything difficult whatsoever, the developer should come in and NSTAR should come in and explain what’s going to be involved, so that everyone, including the public, understands the project.”

Farm land fit

Though the DRI checklist includes several triggers for large-scale buildings or structures, and some intended to protect farm land from development, none quite fit the Edgartown solar project.

“It may be one of those things nobody quite foresaw,” DRI coordinator Paul Foley said.

It is clear, however, that preservation of farm land was important to those who formulated the regulations that trigger MVC reviews.

One part of the DRI checklist covers subdivision of current, former, or potential farmland of five acres or more. The Edgartown project is not a subdivision of farmland.

“Presumably, the intention, when they put in the trigger for subdivision of agricultural land was to protect the agricultural land,” Mr. London said. “People at the time felt development of large areas of agricultural land was something that should be reviewed.”

Christina Brown holds a perspective on the solar development from two different offices. She is an MVC commissioner and also sits on the Edgartown conservation commission, which is responsible for Katama Farm. Development of the farmland was a topic of discussion at the conservation commission.

“We discussed it to some extent,” Ms. Brown said. “We agreed that the voters said ‘lets do it,’ Yes it has drawbacks, yes it has benefits.”

She said that while preserving farmland is important, she also believes it is important to follow the lines drawn in the DRI checklist about what should come before the commission.

“I’m big on sticking to the checklist,” Ms. Brown said. “It always bears looking at and revising, but not in retrospect. You don’t say ‘oh we should have had that on the checklist.'”

Mr. London said commission members may take up the issue of preserving farmland as they consider changes to the DRI checklist. The commissioners are in the middle of a year-long review of the checklist.