By TAYLOR HARTZ
After voting to approve plans for a solar panel array on Hatton Meadow, four town councilors have changed their decision, supporting a motion to revoke the council’s support of the plans in a meeting on June 22.
The motion was made by Councilor Chris Palmieri following a presentation and dozens of public comments speaking out against the array during the town council meeting. The public meeting room was crowded with residents who gathered to urge the council to reconsider plans for Hatton Meadow, addressing concerns for wildlife, conservation, property values.
Residents and councilors shared concerns about preserving Hatton Meadow as an official open space in the town.
“This property has stood for a vision of what is commonly now referred to as open space,” said resident Chad Volk, who expressed concerns for building on the property, often used for recreation.
Dawn Micelli, a six-year member of the open space committee, spoke in favor of adding the meadow to the town’s open space coffers. “I also didn’t see why we would trade one green initiative, i.e., open space, for another green initiative i.e., solar panels,” she said.
During the same meeting, the council approved a referendum to request that the town support $2 million in funding for the purchase of more open space properties, and Hatton Meadow could figure into that plan.
On the other hand, the solar panels would be part of a town-wide project to reduce spending on energy, developed in what Town Manager Gary Brumback called “an energy strategy,” for the town.
The strategy was made up of three phases, said Brumback, that involved the installation of energy efficient doors, windows, and air conditioners, in all town buildings, determining how the town could generate its own electricity, and partnering with organizations to purchase energy at lower rates.
Hatton Elementary School is part of the overall strategy that has a goal of cutting the town’s utility bill by one-third, saving the town $1 million a year, said Brumback. The plan for saving on energy costs at the school would include a solar array on the neighboring meadow, covering two acres in lower portion of the four-acre field that was donated to the town in 1978.
The Planning and Zoning Commission passed the site plan application proposed by Chris Palmer of Greenskies Renewable Energy LLC, in a unanimous vote on June 2.
Brumback said that the array on Hatton meadow, which would include approximately 1,054 modules and generate about 430,000 kilowatt hours, would save the town between $400,000 and $800,000 annually, depending on rate increases over the life of the contract.
The plans adhere to a “power purchase agreement” entered into by Greenskies and the Town of Southington, in which Greenskies has agreed to design, install, and operate the proposed arrays at Hatton School and South End School at no cost to the town, with the promise that the town will buy the power that these two systems produce.
Hearing public comments on the issue at the June 22 Town Council meeting, several Southington residents and councilors proposed alternatives to the two-acre array.
Although the state of Connecticut does not have guidelines for solar arrays, resident Richard Panek referenced guidelines from the State of Massachusetts, in which installations are encouraged on rooftops and in industrial and commercial areas.
When making the motion that the council revoke their approval of the solar array,
Palmieri asked that the council consider suggested such locations, rather than building on “a pristine ecologically valuable area.”
Councilor Palmieri shared his support of building the array on the Hatton rooftop, and asked his fellow councilors to reconsider the possibility of putting solar energy on the roofs of two middle school building sites and to wait for an installation at Hatton until the roof has been repaired.
At the June 2 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting with Greenskies, Palmer explained that his company chose a ground-mounted array rather than a roof installation because the roof at Hatton School would need to be replaced within the 20-year time frame of the contract, causing the array to be installed, removed, and replaced over the life of the contract.
Additionally, the size of the roof would hold a solar array that would produce only 20 to 30 percent of the energy needed in the building, where as the two-acre lot on the meadow would provide for 80 to 90 percent of the entire energy demand.
Brumback said that the decision to build the array on Hatton Meadow rather than the school’s roof was both more cost effective and more energy efficient.
While the councilors opposing approval of the plan agreed that they supported the solar initiative in the town, they felt that the concerns addressed by town residents could be considered in a compromise plan.
Councilor John Barry spoke on behalf of several residents who expressed their concern for various wildlife who inhabit the meadow, and said he could not live with himself if he supported the meadow’s destruction.
Councilor Miceli noted that the dozens of residents who spoke out against the installation on the meadow, and the two who spoke in its favor “made salient points that didn’t come up during the first decision making process.”
She expressed her concern that the council had not explored all options available to the municipality and felt it was necessary to do so since the solar initiative was not an immediate, emergency concern for the town.
“When you have an entire neighborhood come out in opposition of something, I think we have to do our due diligence and listen to them and try to compromise and find other options” said Miceli.
Miceli, Palmieri, and Barry were joined by Councilor Stephanie Urillo in voting to revoke approval of the plan, but the new vote of 5-4 kept the plans in place for the Hatton array.
Despite the public discussion, the energy strategy and partnership with Greenskies to promote energy efficiency will continue as planned.