Patricia Simpson said she bought a home on Mark Road in Franklin 40 years ago because it was in a nice neighborhood with a lot of other families nearby.
A Portsmouth company is now looking to install a three-megawatt solar array with nearly 10,000 panels next door – and Simpson is worried about how it will impact her life and her property. She wonders whether it will discourage families from moving to the neighborhood in the future.
“I understand what you’re trying to do,” Simpson told developers at a recent planning board meeting, explaining she understands the environmental benefits of solar energy. “But I don’t think you’d want it in your neighborhood,” she said, turning back to the board.
Besides the complaints from neighbors, the project involves potential conflicts of interest for several city officials. Still, it has moved swiftly through city government.
Usually, a developer would need to obtain a variance to build an industrial or commercial project in a residential zone, like the low-density residential and single-family residential zoning districts that encompass the 13 acres located near 293 Sanborn St., by Duffy Street and Mark Road. However, Franklin’s city attorney is pointing to state law, RSA 672-1.3a which states that renewable energy systems like solar projects cannot be “unreasonably limited” by the use of municipal zoning powers.
Questions of conflict of interest have been raised involving the chairman of the planning board, David Liberatore, and Franklin’s mayor, Tony Giunta.
The land for the proposed solar project is split into two parcels, both purchased within the last four months by developer Rob Pearlman, who owns several properties in the city, under different names: General Properties, LLC and Sun Development Group, LLC.
At a Dec. 15 planning board meeting, Liberatore said he was the real estate agent for the land sale of at least one of the parcels – 6.75 acres of land located between 293 Sanborn St. and Mark Road and Duffy Street – and recused himself from the conceptual discussion of the project.
The land was never officially put on the market, even though there were other parties interested in buying the land, according to the city assessing department. It was sold through a private sale for $66,000 on Feb. 15 to General Properties, LLC.
When New England Solar Garden submitted its site plan and attended a public hearing on the plan last Wednesday, Liberatore did not recuse himself.
While chairing the public hearing, Liberatore was asked by a member of the public why he wouldn’t recuse himself again.
“I have nothing to do with the project at all anymore,” he said. “The land sold has nothing to do with me.”
Giunta is the director of project development for Nobis Group, the consulting firm doing the engineering work for the project. Nobis Group has also completed engineering work for another General Properties project in Franklin, Mercantile Place, a soon-to-be- three-building business complex purchased in August 2018.
Giunta, meanwhile, did recuse himself at Wednesday’s meeting.
“I wear several hats and the most important hat is to promote the city; I’m the city’s biggest cheerleader,” Giunta told the Monitor. “When someone asks me about Nobis, I promote Nobis Group–- but if the two ever start to cross, immediately I will recuse myself from any conversation that crosses those ethical boundaries.”
The current solar panel project involves a proposed 20 acres of tree clearing for installation of the 3-foot-by-6-foot panels, which will stand 7 ½ feet apart. Surrounding the array will be a 7-foot-high chain-link fence, a representative from Nobis Group said.
There are 17 Franklin addresses listed as abutters on the site plan review application, and more that have a direct view of the project.
Developers are promising residents a 20-foot buffer of trees to the south of the array and 10 feet to the western property line, but several raised concerns that won’t be enough to shield their view. Six spoke at the public hearing Wednesday.
“I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to see over that from my second story bedroom window,” said Maureen Farmer, a 42-year resident of Duffy Street. “I don’t really want to be looking out at thousands of solar panels every day for the rest of my life.”
Andrew Kellar of New England Solar Garden said the company looked to make the solar project as unobtrusive as possible. He said there won’t be any security lighting installed and the project won’t make noise.
“Once it’s built, you won’t even notice it’s there,” he said.
The array would be connected to the power grid with the energy sold through a power purchase agreement with Eversource.
Kellar, who works out of Portsmouth, said he has been part of numerous solar projects across the state. He said he got into the field to make a positive impact on the environment and set an example for his three kids.
New Hampshire Solar Garden was the same company that planned to develop an 8.5-megawatt solar project in Franklin three years ago. That project would have been the state’s largest solar installation but fell through after a bill that would raise the net metering cap failed in the Legislature.
The Franklin planning board will continue to discuss New England Solar Garden’s site plan at their meeting on May 22 at 6 p.m. in city hall.
(Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3322, email@example.com or on Twitter @LeahMWillingham.)