St. Mark’s bringing solar question to Zoning Board (Updated)

by beth on December 1, 2015

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Above: St. Mark’s School is seeking a determination from the ZBA on their right to install a solar array on Sears Road. (panel image posted to flickr by Mike Baker)

Tomorrow night, the Zoning Board of Appeals will hear from St. Mark’s School. According to the agenda for December 2nd, the school is asking the board to rule on their exemption to the solar zoning bylaw.

This summer, Town Planner Jennifer Burney publicly shared that state law may give the school the right to install panels even in a residential zone. The Dover Law apparently prevents towns from restricting use of land or structures for educational purposes.

St. Mark’s has stated that the panels will be incorporated into their STEM curriculum. But interestingly, an article by Southborough Wicked Local reveals that the school is defending their right to install the panels even if not directly used in their studies.

SWL writes:

“St. Mark’s will receive a significant reduction in its campus-wide electricity expenses, allowing St. Mark’s to shift funding from utility costs to enhance the educational resources available to students,” the [school’s] application reads. . .

“Providing electricity for school buildings and other educational facilities on campus in a low cost, sustainable manner clearly supports St. Mark’s educational mission,” [St. Mark’s attorney] wrote. “The solar energy system will be, in essence, no different than the boiler in the basement of various buildings on campus.”

You can read the full article here.

The ruling will be important, since a bylaw passed last spring limits solar installations over 250 kw to the Town’s Industrial and Industrial Park Zones. St. Mark’s is looking to install a 640 kw array.

Many residents were disgruntled this summer when St. Mark’s School announced plans to install a large solar array on Sears Road. The school broke the news by inviting abutters to a meeting on the subject.

In addition to concerned neighbors, you can expect Southborough’s Superintendent and School Committee to be paying close attention to the outcome. Solar installations are something the district has discussed investigating to offset utility costs.

The item is scheduled to come before the ZBA at 8:00 pm on Wednesday.

Updated (12/2/15 9:11 am): I mistakenly identified the installation as targeted for Parkerville Road. It’s actually planned for Sears Road.

1 Leslea L December 1, 2015 at 9:10 PM

Many Southborough residents have already logged complaints against this project in previous months and yet the school continues to push forward on this with the ZBA. I’m only one person, but I would like to be one more voice against the construction of solar panels in the middle of our lovely little town. I agree with all the stated reasons against it, that it destroys another natural environmental habitat while presenting us with an unsightly blight each time we drive down our street. My family and I live on Parkerville Rd. We chose this town fifteen years ago in large part for its rural feel, despite its proximity to both Boston and Worcester. I would hate to lose that feel and watch all of our property values diminish if this project is allowed to proceed, for surely that would be part of the fallout. If St. Mark’s truly cares about its neighbors as they say, they will withdraw this request and find another site on their grounds for solar panels.

2 Southville December 2, 2015 at 8:02 AM

Just curious – anyone have the specific location of the proposed panels? An earlier post mentions Sears road, and this one says they would be on Parkerville.

3 beth December 2, 2015 at 9:13 AM

That was my mistake! It is Sears Road!

Thank you for asking the question that raised it to my attention.

4 Matthew December 2, 2015 at 12:47 PM

Has it been suggested that in exchange for going along with the panels on Sears road that the abutters be given some form of consideration? Could they get panels installed on their homes or be the beneficiaries of the electricity generated by the St. Marks panels?

Or is it only a property value issue where some of the 1 percenters are worried about the resale value when they flip their 10000 square foot houses? They may not even care how much electricity they consume or where it comes from. I may be generalizing but when Leslea comes out of the gate worrying about property values in our lovely little town then it really has to be said.

As for destroying a natural habitat I would like to see the state sponsored studies that show that solar panels are any worse than a house. Much less fertilizer going in the ground water, less exhaust from an idling SUV, and no 5000 gallon septic tank pumping effluent out to a leach field. At first glance it seems like solar panels are just unsightly to a few neighbors and that opinion won’t matter much once the property changes hands. The new owners will see the panels as a normal part of the environment.

Sorry if money is really at the core of the issue for those against the project. Reducing our dependency on oil and coal wherever it comes from should be the publicized objective. Good for St Marks for doing something beneficial with their land rather than handing it over to a developer or expanding their campus. Would much rather see open space but solar is better then asphalt. I wish Fitzies would consider solar paneled enclosed parking for their space. Maybe then the abutters who might benefit from a reduced electric bill might get something for their “loss” of property value.

5 Leslea L December 2, 2015 at 5:12 PM

You make some good points, Matthew. I can tell you care about the environment. I do too, and I would love to see us rely more on alternative forms on energy than oil and electricity. And you’re right, it’s good that St. Mark’s wants to do more to go green. I support that, as I support both solar power and harnessing wind in the right setting. I believe though that a neighborhood is not an ideal place for an array of solar panels, and that perhaps another setting should be explored. I am not one of the 1%ers you referred to but live in a modest cape. I mentioned property values because it’s something every homeowner cares about, regardless of what percentage they’re in. I can’t say how the residents of Sears Road feel about this issue, but I would not want to see a field of solar panels every time I looked out my front window. Scientific American cites a similar situation in Baltimore, and though it makes a case for both sides, it seems clear that many people feel the same way I do. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/solar-panel-boom-pits-neighbor/

6 Frank Crowell December 3, 2015 at 8:54 AM

Just a few questions that I think about as I read these posts.

I wonder how much CO2 reduction there is from an acer of well fed urban lawn there is vs. an acer of solar panels.

I wonder if a solar panel ever produces enough energy to cover the energy it took to make and install the solar panel.

How big would a natural gas powered electric plant have to be to supply Southborough? Could it be less than the foot print of the solar panels installed along 495?

7 Matthew December 3, 2015 at 10:14 AM

Frank,
What is the CO2 reduction in having someone else answer your questions?

Question one:
Your well fed urban lawn is no where as good as you think.
http://nativeplantwildlifegarden.com/is-lawn-a-carbon-sink/

Question two:
First off how could anyone sell a product for less than it costs? Do you think it’s ALL being subsidized by what the democrats are stealing from your taxes?
http://solarcraft.com/solar-energy-myths-facts/

Question three:
Looking for specs on plants in our area but have not had much luck (Frank can you use Google and figure this one out?)
In general…Gas turbines themselves are not huge but the support buildings and infrastructure make the physical size significant. The security fence and buffer zones alone account for a larger ratio than that required of any solar array. Would you worry about the panels blowing up on your neighbors roof as much as a natural gas tank? Would those Syrian refugees target the St Marks array on Sears Road? Is there a relationship between the rising number of solar installations and the decline of NRA memberships?

Here’s a great link regarding costs that I’m sure “someone” will take out of context…Pay attention to the fact that it is published by the Natural Gas Supply Association and uses data from 2011 but it’s a good basis to start the discussion. Since 2011 we see far more homes installing solar at next to no cost so who is bearing the brunt of the investment? Do you think it’s another bubble that will burst?
http://www.ngsa.org/analyses-studies/beck-data-rev/

Another link with more current and also projected data:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cost_of_electricity_by_source

Am I wrongly assuming that you probably assume the dangers of fracking are right along side global warming and don’t outweigh the cost of cleaner energy from the very start of the process.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydraulic_fracturing

Don’t forget – any savings seen as a result of the use of Natural Gas are due to the billions of dollars spent by the power companies developing the technology to exploit a finite resource for as long as possible. The more successful solar becomes then the lower the costs for all. There is even technology under development that makes solar panels 40% efficient vs the 11-15% efficiency of current panels. Every year fracking costs will only go up and solar costs will only go down and the health risks from both will only become clearer even to those who don’t believe it today.

8 Frank Crowell December 3, 2015 at 2:16 PM

Must have hit nerve with those questions. I have that way with people.

“I think we have a very brief window of opportunity to deal with climate change … no longer than a decade, at the most,” Hansen said Wednesday at the Climate Change Research Conference in California’s state capital.

Dr. James Hansen – father of climate change September 2006

Good thing we are looking to add tax payer subsidized solar panels at a tax payer subsidized (your property taxes) educational non profit………..It’s just in time.

How about we keep it open space instead.

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