St. Mark’s clearing trees for solar array (despite active appeal) (Updated)

by beth on September 30, 2016

Post image for St. Mark’s clearing trees for solar array (despite active appeal) (Updated)

Above: One of the old growth trees purportedly cut down behind closed fences as part of the under-appeal solar array project on St. Mark’s land. (contributed photos)

It may come as a surprise to learn that St. Mark’s School has been clear cutting trees for installation of its approved solar array on Sears Road.

(It was to me. Frankly, their project had dropped off my radar.)

This week, I learned about the clear cutting. But it’s some background details that really caught my attention. Earlier this spring/summer, a direct abutter appealed the project approval. Based on the pending appeal, the Building Inspector rejected St. Mark’s application for a building permit.

To move forward, St. Mark’s asked the Worcester Superior Court to summarily dismiss the appeal motion. Along with the school’s attorneys, Town Counsel Aldo Cipriano showed up to argue in favor of the school’s request.

(Presumably, that was justified as defending the actions of a Town Board. But it may hit a sore spot with some residents. During Park Central and Flagg Road hearings, residents complained about the Town’s perceived tendency to pay counsel to defend developers’ projects rather than objecting-residents’ rights.)

The judge rejected St. Mark’s request to dismiss. Instead, he green lighted moving forward with the discovery phase of the case.

After the ruling, the Building Inspector reversed his earlier decision and issued a building permit to the school. I asked Building Commissioner Mark Robidoux what the newer decision was based on. I wondered if it based on guidance from counsel, a Town official, or board. His response:

On the advice of Counsel and due to pending litigation, I cannot comment on any aspect of this.

As for the Planning Board’s approval last spring, unfortunately, there is no publicly posted record of it yet. (And no news coverage.) 

In hearings prior to April 25th, abutters objected to the school’s plans.

And even some non-abutters were upset that St. Mark’s was taking advantage of laws that appear to waive zoning restrictions on buildings/construction for educational purposes. The school argued based on case law that anything that benefits the school is for an educational purpose. The argument persuaded the Zoning Board of Appeals to grant the right for constructing an industrial array in a residential zone.

After multiple continuances that spring, the Site Plan Review hearing was again scheduled April 25th.

Unfortunately, there was a perfect storm for keeping residents in the dark. Unlike other Planning Board Meetings, Southborough Access Media couldn’t be there that night to record it.

And not only did I miss attending, but it seems the Metrowest Daily News must have as well. I followed up with the then-understaffed Planning Office later that week and the next. As of early May, the decision had yet to be written up.

If it has been since, it was unfortunately never forwarded. Since then, minutes have been posted for April 11th and prior, plus minutes for meetings in May – July. But April 25th minutes have yet to be approved and provided to the staff member who does the postings.*

*Editor’s Note: I’d like to clarify that I am not accusing the board of hiding the decision. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt that this is an oversight that occurred during a period of time when they were without a Town Planner.

I will continue to follow up to get ahold of the April 25th Planning Board Meeting minutes and decision. But, I didn’t want to hold the news until then. Especially since they are again understaffed with the recent retirement of their long-time assistant!

Updated (10/3/16 10:46 am): I received the minutes from the 4/25 approval vote.

1 Frank Crowell September 30, 2016 at 3:31 PM

What St Mark’s wants St Mark’s gets. Abutters should ask the judge to rule as if a Kennedy family member were an abutter (Cape Wind).

I guess this solar farm was not discussed the other night. Any clean energy advocates live near a solar or wind farm? Would they want to? Any of them have property out on the Cape? Were they in favor of Cape Wind? Fairly sure we all know the answers to these questions.

2 Trixie September 30, 2016 at 6:53 PM

I would suggest that the abutters get going now planting some fast growing trees on their property line, especially on the south side of the St Marks future solar array. Not only will it provide a visual buffer, the the shade will really mess up the electrical generation. It may take a few years though.

3 Interested Resident September 30, 2016 at 10:48 PM

As a long time resident I find it most interesting that St. Marks chose to “Fence Off” the ENTIRE OPEN SPACE area rather than just the few acres being constructed. This is St. Marks Open Space that for years has been enjoyed by the community on a daily basis. No more jogging, walking the dog etc while this construction is taking place.

One can only reasonably assume this is an intentional effort to keep residents from seeing the large scale industrial solar plant being installed on residentially zoned land. Certainly a neighbor like St. Marks could have just fenced the area being cut/built so as to minimize the inconvenience to residents who have enjoyed the natural meadows for years. Very selfish behavior for an institution who’ employees that live on campus and send their kids to our school systems that we pay for with our tax $$$.

4 louise barron October 1, 2016 at 2:45 PM

Isn’t it incongruous that an school would use education as an excuse to rape the land
of every living tree and shrub. Trees, that provide as much oxygen in a season as 10 people inhale in a year. Trees, that absorb chemicals in ground soil, slow storm water run off, increase property values, clean the air, a buffer against dangerous winds. Just to name a few. St Marks should be ashamed and so should this town and it’s leaders who again agreed to do what is not in the TOWN’S best interest. Can you say pot, a giant housing development that doesn’t belong here, that will decimate the town, and Las Vegas style billboards.

5 louise barron October 1, 2016 at 2:46 PM

Isn’t it incongruous that an school would use education as an excuse to rape the land
of every living tree and shrub. Trees, that provide as much oxygen in a season as 10 people inhale in a year. Trees, that absorb chemicals in ground soil, slow storm water run off, increase property values, clean the air, a buffer against dangerous winds. Just to name a few. St Marks should be ashamed and so should this town and it’s leaders who again agreed to do what is not in the TOWN’S best interest. Can you say pot, a giant housing development that doesn’t belong here, that will decimate the town, and Las Vegas style billboards. Oh and by the way, we pay for St. Marks teachers to send their off spring to our schools for FREE

6 JMO October 2, 2016 at 11:42 PM

What St Marks is doing is unconscionable. Clearly the Dover Amendment was never intended to cover such a far reaching project. I am the parent of a child who attended St Marks, and I held the school in very high esteem. I have on more than one occasion rolled my eyes about opinions published about the school on this very blog. This project, however, has forever tainted my view. To think that they would wipe out 2 acres of trees under the auspices of building a “green” project. Who are they kidding? What I don’t understand is why they could not mount the solar arrays on their rooftops or even built a parking lot cover similar to what REI in Framingham has constructed, Instead, in the name of being “green”, they chose to destroy 2 acres of prime forested land. Shame on you St Marks! John Warren is this really the legacy you want to leave, an ugly solar array in the middle of what was once a pristine conserved area?

7 RTZ October 3, 2016 at 2:13 PM

JMO – I could not agree more. I’m a graduate of the school and I’m disgusted by the behavior of John Warren and the Board of Trustees. Chopping down 2 acres of trees for a solar array is a gross perversion of environmental stewardship. Attempting to trade the golf course property to the town for the fire and police station property is another selfish misuse of their holdings. That property was originally gifted to the school by the Choate family to be used for public recreation purposes. Many times I have defended the school against criticism of their lack of contribution to the town’s tax base arguing that Fay and St. Mark’s play a critical role in preserving the beautiful green and open spaces that surround the center of our town. No more. Their current behavior is indefensible.

8 mike fuce October 3, 2016 at 9:32 AM

Good for them, one of the guys across from their tried to push lights onto Finn Baseball area which would have decreased the neighbors peace and quite but the same person does not want GREEN solar. Hypocrite.

9 kah October 3, 2016 at 11:17 AM

What happened to St. Mark’s “commitment to environmental stewardship” expressed through that “sustainable meadow?” Insert eyeroll here.

10 louise barron October 3, 2016 at 10:31 PM

Incongruous that St. Marks would use the “education” trump card to decimate and rape the land of all the trees for solar panels. Trees absorb pollutants in the air and soil. Trees create an ecosystem to provide habitat for birds and animals. Explain this destruction to your students at St. Marks. This town has made some truly stupid decisions. This being one of them, the dope den the other. When is the strip club coming. I am ashamed of our leaders in Southborough, as they have lost site of what is important in our town.

11 beth October 4, 2016 at 12:06 PM

Note: For any readers wondering why so many of Louis Barron’s comments in this stream are similar – She alerted me that multiple attempts didn’t post. (They got caught in my spam filter.) Since there were some different points raised/language used, I cleared them all at once.

12 Mike Fuce October 4, 2016 at 12:22 PM

OK stop with the tree hugging thing. Trees provide fuel, shade, oxygen etc. There’s more trees on the surface of America in 2016 than there was in 1916. Go figure out why if you wish but we have plenty of trees.

13 JMO October 21, 2016 at 10:29 AM

More trees, but also more people. We don’t have “plenty of trees” or space for wildlife.

14 Publius October 4, 2016 at 4:31 PM

So some are concerned about global warming, …er climate change. But now against solar panels. Cannot have it both ways.

15 JMO October 21, 2016 at 10:30 AM

I don’t think people are against solar panels, but there is something wrong with wiping out nature to do it. Why didn’t they throw them on the roof, or make a covered parking area. It’s their methods not the fact that they are getting solar.

16 AEP October 10, 2016 at 7:00 PM

While I’m all favor of solar, I think there were many alternatives St. Marks could have explored before cutting down trees, displacing wildlife, and destroying more valuable green space. Several folks suggested using some of the school’s roof-tops or parking lots (similar to what REI has done in locations all over the country — including Framingham). It appears those alternatives were never seriously considered.

I guess what still doesn’t make sense to me is how the judge ‘green lighted’ moving forward with the project. I thought the Worcester judge could rule if the appeal would be heard or dismissed? I didn’t realize he had the authority to ‘green light’ the project? And with the appeal still pending, I’m not sure why the building inspector reversed his decision? But since he did, it seems town residents are entitled to know why he reversed his decision (regardless of pending litigation) since the construction continues?

Been a resident of Southboro for nearly 25 years and I blame myself for not being more active in many of these town planning board and zoning decisions. But the facts are St. Marks didn’t really want to get local residents involved (given meeting times, notices, timing), the meeting minutes were published over 6 months late (coincidentally, only after this article) which made all of this much harder to follow. And finally, the former chairman of the Southboro Zoning Appeals Board represented the case on behalf of St. Marks in front of a Worcester judge, where he has practiced law for more than 30 years (his kids attended St. Marks as well). Can’t help but feel like this was an inside job from the beginning, executed without concern of the tax paying citizens and residents.

17 beth October 11, 2016 at 7:53 AM

The judge did not greenlight the project. The judge greenlighted moving ahead with discovery in the case. That did not mean moving ahead with construction of the site. That is not something he ruled on (to my knowledge). His ruling meant that they could move forward with depositions etc.

18 AEP October 11, 2016 at 8:20 AM

Got it, thanks for the clarification Beth! It seems the building inspector still owes residents an explanation on why he reversed his decision, since he originally denied the permit because the matter was under appeal — that did not change.

Hope the zoning board can do a better job of protecting green space in town moving forward. Interpreting the overly broad Dover amendment as “anything that benefits the school is for an educational purpose” seems over reaching. By this logic, if St. Marks wanted to build a 10 story dorm on more green space, they could use the Dover amendment and case law as a precedent to proceed.

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