Agricultural Society solar project delayed by rare orchid

The Polly Hill Arboretum is not happy about the Ag Society decision to clear a two-acre site adjacent to its property.

The Ag Society plans to erect a solar array on this two-acre site adjacent to Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury. — Photo by Sam Moore

The plans of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society to break ground before spring on a 249-kilowatt ground-mounted solar array project, covering close to two acres of Ag Society land adjacent to the Polly Hill Arboretum off State Road in West Tisbury, have hit an environmental snag.

Tree clearing went beyond the boundaries approved by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) to protect the cranefly orchid, a protected species listed as endangered by the state. The cranefly is classified a member of Orchidaceae family. Lady’s slipper, another Island orchid, is classified as a member of the same family by some but not all botanists.

NHESP reviewed the project in May and conditioned its approval on a 150-foot setback from an area identified as a cranefly orchid habitat.

The West Tisbury zoning board of appeals approved the solar panel project in November.

Although the setback was a part of the plan, the clearing work went beyond the allowable distance.

The Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program exists within the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. It is a small agency with a powerful regulatory reach. Natural Heritage is responsible for the regulatory protection of rare species and their habitats, and derives its authority from the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act.

Natural Heritage has review authority for any work that would be done on the properties that fall within the category of state-designated “priority habitat.” It is a designation based on the known geographical extent of habitat for all state-listed rare species, both plants and animals.

On Martha’s Vineyard, the state has designated about two-thirds of the entire Island as priority habitat for protected animal or plant species.

Survey required

An email dated Jan. 14, 2016, from Brent Powers, NHESP biologist, sent to project surveyor Chris Alley of Schofield, Barbini and Hoehn of Vineyard Haven, with copies to West Tisbury building inspector Joe Tierney said, “Through the course of the past project review the Division asked to have a botanical survey completed. At the completion of two rounds of botanical survey the selected botanist observed several small patches of Cranefly Orchid on the property and within the original limit of work. It is important to note that at the time the botanical survey only occurred within the proposed limit of work and did not cover the entire property.

“Based on the past survey work and information in the file it appears areas of the property were not surveyed for Cranefly Orchid survey. Therefore, should the applicant desire to expand the limit of work (i.e. clearing for shade mitigation) the Division will likely require a botanical survey for Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor) be conducted and the results of the botanical survey be sent to the Division for review.”

Green money

Ag Society president Dale McClure said the solar project is a joint effort with Bennett Electric, an Island-based solar power developer owned by Bill Bennett of Chilmark, to generate income to help pay for the debt load created when the Ag Society borrowed $800,000 to add eight acres of land to its holdings.

Mr. McClure said the project will cost the society between $500,000 and $600,000, and will be financed jointly by Bennett Electric and the Ag Society. Mr. Bennett will benefit from federal and state tax-credit incentives, but the Ag Society will not because it is a nonprofit. But both entities will benefit from the sale of Massachusetts Solar Renewable Energy Certifications (SRECs), a state program that issues one negotiable SREC for each thousand kilowatt-hours produced, and from the sale of electricity credits from the production of energy beyond what is used by the Ag Society.

Mr. McClure said that in keeping with the Ag Society’s mission to support local agriculture, they will offer discounted energy credits first to local farmers to help lower their electrical bills. Mr. McClure deferred to Mr. Bennett on the specifics of the joint venture.

Mr. Bennett said that he is really happy to be helping the Ag Society get out of debt and to be building another solar project to help reduce the Island’s dependence on fossil fuels, but he declined to describe the specifics of the financial arrangement. “I am in business,” he said.

Mr. Bennett said the project will utilize steel posts driven into the ground, with no concrete to disturb the land. “The entire array could be removed in a day if need be,” he said.

Mr. Bennett pointed to his experience building similar-size arrays. He said he is also working on an off-Island solar array project.

In 2012, Mr. Bennett erected a solar array in fields off Watcha Road in Edgartown, a site he once envisioned as a neighborhood of 11 affordable homes called Cozy Hearth.

Clearing concerns

The Ag Society bought the land, in a three-way deal in 2012, from the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, which once envisioned a new museum on the 10-acre site and later decided to buy and develop the old Marine Hospital in Vineyard Haven. The Ag Society purchased eight acres, and Polly Hill purchased two acres. The land is sandwiched between the two nonprofits.

Tim Boland, director of the Polly Hill Arboretum, expressed some concern over the number of trees cut down for the project and the proximity of the solar array to the arboretum.

“We certainly support efforts to produce renewable power, but we are also tree people,” he said in a phone call. In a follow-up by email, he said, “As far as the placement of the solar array on the Ag Society property, we would have liked to have been part of the preplanning dialogue, as its placement directly on our border impacts our visitors who go to our most popular site, Polly’s Playpen, and it also is visible from our future one-acre woodland garden. Looking at their remaining six acres, it could have been more thoughtfully placed closer to their current developed area. “Development should be clustered with past development. We now have to develop extension screening, which could have been avoided if a larger (native woodland) buffer had been left in place. A 80-year-old natural woodland is hard to replicate.”

Mr. Boland said that he will be working with the Ag Society on plantings for a buffer zone.

Mr. McClure said that many of the trees that were taken down were either diseased, or dead from caterpillar and wasp infestations.

The Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society was founded in 1859 with a mission to promote the pursuit of agriculture and improve the quality and quantity of livestock and produce on the Vineyard. The annual fair is their largest and best-known event, but the society promotes agriculture through their own activities, scholarships, grants, cooperation with other Island groups, and by providing a space for a variety of community and agriculture-related events.