Prospects dim for Oak Bluffs Water District solar array

The MVC rejected a proposed Oak Bluffs Water District solar array that would have destroyed six acres of the State Forest. – Stacey Rupolo

The proposed Oak Bluffs Water District (OBWD) Solar Energy System (SES) was dealt a major setback on Monday night when the Land Use Planning Committee (LUPC) voted unanimously 5-0 to recommend that the full commission deny the project when it makes its final decision at Thursday night’s meeting.

The LUPC is a subcommittee of the full commission. The LUPC post-public hearing review is the second-to-last step in the DRI approval process. A benefits and detriments checklist guides the LUPC vote.

The overriding factor behind the LUPC thumbs-down was the proposed location of the array, which would require roughly six acres of a 45-acre parcel of OBWD-owned land to be cleaned and stumped for the SES, and four more acres of trees to be cut down for improved sun exposure.

“Cutting down trees to put in solar panels is not a precedent I think [the] MVC should be setting,” Fred Hancock, commissioner from Oak Bluffs, said.

“It’s not contributing anything horrible, but it’s removing something that protects the groundwater,” West Tisbury commissioner Linda Sibley said.

The proposed parcel abuts land owned by Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, as well as the State Forest, the groundwater protection district of critical planning concern (DCPC) in Tisbury, and the Greenlands Water Resource Protection DCPC in West Tisbury.

Commissioner Christina Brown of Edgartown initially took a more favorable view. “The DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) and National Heritage (National Heritage Endangered Species Program) have approved it. I’m satisfied with the careful work they’ve done.”

“It’s the right concept, perhaps the wrong location. The goal is finding places that are already disturbed,” John Breckenridge, commissioner from Oak Bluffs, said.
“I think they had a good impulse, but they didn’t understand adequately what they were asking the Island to sacrifice,” Ms. Sibley said.

“We don’t know all the alternative locations. I hope the town will explore this more,” Ms. Brown said.

“We have to weigh some intangibles with monetary valuing, but that’s what we’re supposed to do,” Mr. Hancock said.

Since the SES went to the MVC in January, a number of prominent environmentalists had written in opposition to the project. Their objections weighed heavily in the LUPC decision.

Tim Boland, executive director of the Polly Hill Arboretum, wrote, “As a forest ecologist I am against clearing in this area, as it represents a greater opportunity to mitigate climate change through ancient forest preservation. While numerous models show the benefits of solar power, they never take into account that the existing forests, their carbon storage capacity, water filtration properties, and the abundant flora that is associated with them, are clearly worth preserving, not clearing for a temporary utility use.”

Harvard Forest director David Foster, who has done an extensive study on Martha’s Vineyard which will be published this fall by Yale University Press, wrote, “To clear thriving woodland that is actively storing carbon and mitigating climate change in order to install solar arrays is counterintuitive. But to further reduce an irreplaceable ancient ecosystem and a portion of the largest sandplain forest on the Island would be a travesty. Solar panels belong on roofs, at the bottom of gravel pits (there are many, but more room remains), and on other sites in which the native vegetation has already been removed.”

Commissioners Linda Sibley of West Tisbury, Fred Hancock of Oak Bluffs, Christine Brown of Edgartown, John Breckenridge of Oak Bluffs, and Robert Doyle of Chilmark voted to recommend the full commission deny the project.

On Wednesday, Blue Wave Capital senior director Jonathan Mancini told The Times he thought the “ancient forest” argument had been debunked. “We had John Edwards, a state-licensed forester, testify that the oldest trees were 102 years old, and it was not an ancient forest,” he said. “We have a report from a New England Environmental biologist stating it is not ancient forest. We received analysis from Bristol Engineering Group that said there wouldn’t be detriments to groundwater. We have all the necessary approvals. We’ve engaged the community, we relocated the site and cut the size in half. The discouraging part is we did all the right things, and it feels like we’re being denied on emotion.”

Blue Wave Capital, the permitting and consulting entity for the project, projected the SES would save the OBWD $668,000 in electricity costs over the 20-year contract, and bring in roughly $793,000 in income, including $236,000 to the town in property tax.

“I’m deeply saddened that merits of this project have been overwhelmed and the focus has been redirected from the benefits of it,” OBWD superintendent Kevin Johnson told The Times on Wednesday. “I don’t think the MVC has treated us well from day one. The focus of commission members has not been on the true benefits of the project. The ‘ancient forest’ has been misrepresented by so-called experts. The six acres of trees are no different than the trees in my backyard. The idea that it could harm the groundwater is absurd — the DEP is very rigorous, and it gave its approval. It’s too bad, because it would have benefitted our ratepayers.”