It is now time to book court dates as the next phase of the Tracer Lane Solar Project unfolds. For anyone who hasn’t been following, the project consists of a 1.0-megawatt ground-mounted solar energy system on private land in Lexington adjacent to Cambridge’s water supply reservoir and a Waltham neighborhood. The proposed solar arrays cover about 3.5 acres and will require the removal of 1,000+ trees.
Lexington’s Planning Board approved the project in May — with a long list of conditions. Since then, four parties have filed civil actions with the Commonwealth’s courts challenging the Board’s decision – the developer Harold Nahigian, the City of Cambridge, the City of Waltham, and a subset of the abutting neighbors along with one Cambridge resident. No one seems happy with the approval or the 53 development conditions included in the Planning Board’s decision.
Let the Courts Chime In
Litigation is a very popular tactic used to stop or delay infrastructure projects, especially energy projects. Tracer Lane is no exception.
The City of Cambridge alleges that the conditions imposed by Lexington’s Planning Board would fail to prevent discharge of stormwater into the reservoir. The cutting of 1,000+ trees would cause erosion, vegetation damage, increased risk of invasive species, and cause pollution of the reservoir. Cambridge wants the project stopped.
The City of Waltham echoes similar concerns in its complaint. Waltham believes the substantial number of conditions deemed necessary by Lexington’s Planning Board to allow the project to move forward demonstrates the innate unsuitability of the property for a solar installation. Waltham believes the conditions imposed by the Planning Board are insufficient to protect public health, safety, and the welfare of the adjacent residential neighborhood. Lexington’s conditions also impose obligations on Waltham’s fire protection services and Waltham taxpayers.
The neighborhood abutters believe the project violates environmental laws and regulations, and presents a distinct and unambiguous threat to the natural environment. Their complaint claims that the Board’s decision reflects an unfortunate disregard of the legitimate health, safety, and environmental concerns of the cities of Waltham and Cambridge and their residents.
The project developer is not happy with the Lexington Planning Board either. The developer seeks a court determination that 13 of the conditions exceeded the Planning Board’s authority and are inapplicable to their “as-of-right” use for the property. The developer claims the Tracer Lane property was zoned to commercial/manufacturing by the Town of Lexington in 2015 with the express understanding that the parcel would be used to build a large-scale solar system. The condition requiring a 100-foot setback from the Waltham residential neighborhood represents an especially troubling constraint for the developer, as it will likely reduce the size of the solar array, thus rendering the project “economically unfeasible” and the site “valueless.”
As one would expect, the initial complaints contain much hyperbole. Court records suggest that parties will file responses to the complaints by September. A Waltham citizens group believes that all four lawsuits may be consolidated by the court. Court proceedings and trials could stretch on for years.
What Should Happen at Tracer Lane?
Fortuitously, on July 6, in a widely-reported announcement, the Healey-Driscoll Administration released the Massachusetts Technical Potential of Solar Study and its accompanying interactive map tool, which looks at suitable locations for solar installations across the state. The Department of Energy Resources (DOER) estimates that Massachusetts has a total of 506 gigawatts (GW) of solar potential, with 52 GW of potential from “top-rated” rooftop, canopy, and ground-mount solar sites.
The study concluded that Massachusetts has more than enough solar potential to support its decarbonization requirements — about 15 to 18 times what is likely needed. The “top-rated” parcels add up to double the amount of solar called for in the 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap. As Governor Maura Healey said, “The study shows we can site solar strategically to balance our land use and environmental justice priorities while meeting our solar and emissions reduction targets.”
The StoryMap tool allows users to explore the total solar potential and suitability of any parcel in Massachusetts for solar development. The study categorized each site across six development suitability categories: agricultural impact, biodiversity impact, the importance of the land to the ecosystem, net carbon dioxide impact, electric infrastructure proximity, and terrain shape, including slope and aspect. Each parcel was then scored to determine suitability for solar development.
No study is perfect, but what does this current MA DOER effort say about the Tracer Lane parcel?
Tracer Lane is not the best — but certainly not the worst site for solar development. Proximity to the electric grid is a key positive for Tracer Lane. However, the parcel did not make the “top rated” list. The DOER classifies Tracer Lane as having “mixed suitability” for solar development. A bigger question may be, given the lack of support and contention at Tracer Lane, why not focus development efforts on the “top rated” parcels or sites with less opposition? The Commonwealth believes we have more than enough of these sites to meet our climate goals. The Sustainable Lexington Committee might have got it right when it said “we think the public would be better served if this particular property could be acquired and protected for its conservation and water supply values.” Perhaps the Town of Lexington and the Cities of Cambridge and Waltham can come together and develop a creative acquisition plan. Or maybe organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and Mass Audubon can help shape a solution which does not alter this unique parcel.