Lexington’s Planning Board reviewed plans for the Tracer Lane Solar project at a hearing on Wednesday, but held off on a vote on whether to approve the plan until some outstanding concerns are addressed. Critics raised issues about the number of trees that would be cut down, fire safety, and the potential for toxic chemicals to end up in the nearby Cambridge Reservoir.
The 1 megawatt solar project, proposed by private developer Tracer Lane II Realty, LLC, would be located in a forested area in Lexington adjacent to the Cambridge Reservoir and a residential neighborhood in Waltham. Opponents say the project would require cutting down approximately 800 trees and could endanger the drinking water supply for 120,000 residents of Cambridge if toxins from the panels leach into the groundwater or spread in smoke plumes in the case of a fire.
In 2019, the City of Waltham challenged the project in state court, claiming that though the land in Lexington is commercially zoned, a planned access road would pass through residential property in Waltham. The court concluded that the zoning concerns did not outweigh the benefits of the solar project.
Several residents of Waltham spoke out against the project at the meeting on Wednesday.
“There are 33 human, dangerous toxins that would be released in the smoke in the event of a fire,” said Dr. Rachel Learned, a Waltham resident who identified herself as the primary author of a report on the website Waltham Neighbors for Safe Solar and a research scientist with a PhD from MIT. “The Cambridge water supply would be contaminated with multiple toxins that are on the EPA hazardous waste list,” Dr. Learned said. The report claims that there is a 1 in 10 chance of fire at the solar farm over a 35-year span of operation.
“What I would like to know is how the evacuation plan works.” said Ryan Griffin-Goode, a young resident of one of the nearby homes in Waltham. “I have a sister who is in a wheelchair and of course I love my sister very much. My sister would probably need at least 30 minutes to evacuate and that would leave us in that toxic smoke.”
A letter submitted by the City of Waltham recalls the recent train derailment in Ohio, which spread toxic fumes and required residents to evacuate. The event lead residents and the media to “correctly question why government agencies allowed such risks to exist,” the letter warns.
“We’re all for solar installations, but where they belong — and that should not be displacing forests or putting water supplies at risk. It should be on degraded lands or on our rooftops,” said Lexington resident Dr. Jill Stein. “I think in this case the public health risks cannot be addressed and the project should be denied.”
But Lexington Town Counsel Mina Makarious said that the Board’s “discretion is fairly limited” due to the fact that Town Meeting already approved the zoning in 2015. The property is in a commercial manufacturing zone, which allows for solar, and is subject only to site plan review, a non-discretionary form of permitting, which means that the Board cannot refuse the project assuming it meets all the requirements. He also invoked a Massachusetts law known as the Dover amendment, which states that “No zoning ordinance or by-law shall prohibit or unreasonably regulate the installation of solar energy systems or the building of structures that facilitate the collection of solar energy, except where necessary to protect the public health, safety or welfare.”
Lexington Town Meeting member Ricki Pappo pushed back against this interpretation. “I felt like what I heard earlier in the discussion was, because of the Dover amendment, we can’t say no to this. And I’d like to question that because I understand that health and safety are reasons upon which one could deny a permit for for this solar array.”
“Town Meeting has determined that this is an appropriate site for solar energy systems and I don’t think we’re in a position to overrule that,” said Planning Board member Charles Horning. “But I do think we are in a position to write some conditions that allow this to get built.”
Board members voiced about 10 potential conditions, including tree replanting, more detailed fire safety plans, and a 100 ft setback from the property lines as opposed to the current 50 ft setback. Those conditions will be compiled into a memo and circulated in advance of a follow-up meeting tentatively scheduled for May 17.
Health and wellness is affected by this project and therefore the Dover amendment should not apply. The fact that zoning was approved in 2015 doesn’t mean it can’t be disapproved for said health and safety reasons. Lexington can take a page out of Waltham’s book on eminent domain and just take the land. Or simply buy the applicant out. Only one person seems to benefit and thousands will be affected. It’s common sense. If this project goes forward, the applicant better be insured to the hilt. Because if anything happens it’s on him.
Adding to my previous comments. I’d like to see the plan regarding evacuation of the area if this project burns. Where are we to go? Who pays for hotel rooms and other arrangements. When can I go back to my home? Another topic is the property values of this area will plummet. The applicant doesn’t care about that! Does he plan on living in his home if the project continues? Doubt it. All he wants is the ROI!! $$$$
There is a bill amendment pending that would remove that wording from the Dover amendment. That amendment was written before anyone envisaged thousands of acres of forest being cut down for solar arrays. There are better place to site solar. We do need solar, and we also need forests to sequester carbon, absorb rainfall, and support wildlife. We are at a critical moment with both climate change and biodiversity loss, and we urgently need to preserve our forests. Move the panels elsewhere! The state should be incentivizing the land owners to protect the trees.
Removing a carbon sequestering and water purifying forest is always the wrong way to go. In particular, this forrest aids in the purification of waters that will end up in a resovoir serving a city. Logic dictates that solar panels should never displace forrest for a multitude of additional reasons including ecosystem open space preservation we desperately need in an over built. This is in addition to the critical and real health and safety issues previously presented.
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