HOPKINTON — The application for amendments to the town’s zoning and comprehensive plan for a commercial solar energy project at 201 Chase Hill Road continued last week at a virtual public hearing.
Filed by Centrica Business Solutions and Karen and James Cherenzia Jr., the proposal for the 23-acre property was first presented to the Planning Board nearly a year and a half ago on March 6, 2019. Citing the commercial solar project’s incompatibility with the town’s comprehensive plan, members of the board issued a unanimous negative advisory opinion on the project, which would place a large commercial solar facility in a residential zone.
At last week’s two-hour hearing, the council heard from several witnesses for the developer as well as members of the public.
Representing the applicants, attorney Steven Surdut introduced three witnesses, beginning with project engineer Jason Gold, who told the council that after hearing the concerns of abutters, the project had been reduced in both size and visual impact.
“We made quite a bit of changes to reduce the size of this array and to push it further back into the northeast corner,” he said. “The array’s been reduced from 3.3 megawatts to 2.5 megawatts. That’s a 24% reduction. This reduced the size of the fenced area by 4.4 acres about, down to 8.7 acres, so that’s 34%, nearly a third reduction in area.”
Moving the project back from neighboring residences, Gold said, increased the distance to the nearest abutter by 200 feet to 480 feet.
The unconventional plans for the project call for retaining the house on the property, while the rest of the parcel would be changed from a low-density residential zone to commercial.
In addition, the new facility would not be able to connect to the adjacent National Grid Chase Hill substation and would require the installation of poles down to Chase Hill Road.
Centrica Director of Business Development Douglas Telepman said he was aware that solar development was a controversial topic in town but he emphasized that his company stood apart from other solar developers that have built unpopular projects in the town.
“This project should not be thought of and lumped in with some of these other projects that have been at the root of quite a bit of controversy,” he said.
Telepman also noted that the Cherenzias had approached his company because they need the revenue.
“I don’t believe that this is really a commercial situation as it relates to your contemplating this approval,” he told the council. “I think this is very personal and it’s very personal to the extent that if you choose to approve this system, or the application, the impact is going to be life-changing for the Cherenzia family, and if you choose not to approve the application, it will also be life-changing for the Cherenzia family, but in a negative way.”
In addition to the $11,250 it would collect in annual personal property taxes, Telepman said the town would benefit financially from electricity from the project.
“The town can benefit over the next 20 years to the tune of about $4.5 million, and if the town wanted to use the power for longer, the financial benefit over 25 years would approach $6 million,” he said.
Council member Sylvia Thompson said she appreciated the work that Centrica had done on other projects in the town and the company’s willingness to listen to abutters’ concerns, but she said she remained opposed to the project.
“The last hearing I attended, I had a negative view then, and I still, unfortunately, have a negative view of the project as it stands now,” she said. “It’s a very difficult area for solar, because in a sense it’s landlocked, and the only access road is onto Chase Hill, and we all know how dangerous that road can be.”
During the public comment period, residents were unanimous in their opposition to the project.
“It doesn’t matter how many times the applicant reduces the footprint of the panels or rearranges them on the parcel,” Clifford Heil said. “... Changing a single residential parcel in a rural residential neighborhood to a commercial parcel is not going to be consistent with the comprehensive plan.”
Joshua Cherenzia, son of the property owners, said he did not understand why opposition to the proposal had become so intense.
“They’re just looking to make some money,” he said. “My father’s in a hardship, my mother’s really in a hardship now with the virus and everything that’s going on at the school. Like I said, I understand it’s nobody’s fault. I just wish everybody wouldn’t get so angry. I’ve never seen so much hate.”
The council will render a decision on the project at the Sept. 21 meeting.