FAIRFIELD — Homeowners Scott and Robin Weeks say a planned energy power project with 30,600 solar panels to be located 150 feet from their home off U.S. Route 201 in Fairfield will ruin not only their view of open farm fields and wildlife but ruin their property value as well.
Even so, the Fairfield Planning Board voted April 1 to give BD Solar Fairfield LLC a conditional-use permit for a solar park on 46 acres, with conditions that the transmission lines be underground and that an 8-foot chain link fence with green vinyl slats be erected as a “visual buffer.”
Scott Weeks said he is upset that the Planning Board could change the designation of the area from rural residential zone to an industrial energy site.
The vote was 4-0, with the fifth member, Kevin Violette, the chairman, voting only if a tie-breaker is needed.
“How can four board members change the whole landscape of the whole rural residential area in Fairfield?” Weeks asked from the couple’s kitchen table, which along with their summer sun porch face the proposed solar site. “Because we’re rural, they can put any industrial site that they want. Because they they don’t have businesses in Fairfield, they want to increase the tax base because the taxes are high. My comment is taxes are high — there’s no business in Fairfield because the taxes are high.”
The criticism from the Weeks is highlighting tension between the development of commercial solar and residential areas. In Fairfield, that tension is firmly related to broadening the tax base as well.
Fairfield Town Manager Michelle Flewelling said it is no secret that the town wants to lower the tax rate, which is $22.80 per $1,000 in property value. And it’s no secret that the town needs jobs from the three solar projects currently planned in the town of Fairfield, she said.
The three solar projects currently permitted by the town are:
• BD Solar Fairfield, by Dirigo Solar LLC and BNRG Renewables, to operate a 11.3 megawatt solar array off Route 201.
• Barefoot Solar, by hep energy USA LLC, is planning 15,280 solar panels atop the capped Fairfield landfill off Western Avenue. One of the requirements is to run transmission lines above ground.
• Hinckley Solar LLC, by Florida-based NextEra Energy, on Kendall Annex Road in the Hinckley section of Fairfield, owned by the Flood Farm Properties of Clinton for a 20 megawatt generation project. It’s not visible from the road. The company has a contract with the state of Connecticut for the power generated at the Hinckley site.
“These three solar projects are projected to invest an estimated $55.6 million in Fairfield over the next few years,” Flewelling said. “These projects have the potential of creating at least 100 construction jobs during the construction season.”
Flewelling said some of the power generated from the three solar projects also could be delivered to local businesses, to reduce their operating costs and keep them in operation in Fairfield.
“Not only do you have that business, you also have the jobs that it protects,” she said.
She said the solar project planned for the property abutting the Weeks’ home is known as a solar energy system and is allowed in the rural residential zones. The town of Fairfield’s Land Use Ordinance lists solar energy systems under commercial uses. They are allowed in rural residential, commercial, industrial and rural zones, she said.
“The piece of property in question is located within the rural residential zone,” Flewelling said.
Kevin Violette, the Planning Board chairman, agreed, noting that there have been two other commercial businesses nearby for some time. He said the Weeks have had plenty of time to either try to purchase the abutting land themselves or to plant trees as a buffer zone in anticipation of future commercial uses.
He said they didn’t look at the plans until the last minute.
“I pointed out to him that being a developmental zone and having someone show up willing to spend $16 million on solar panels is a quite a boost to our tax base,” Violette said. “The other advantage to being green and solar is the fact that’s there’s no burden on our town. No kids are going to be coming to the solar farm to go to our schools. There’s no infrastructure — there’s no roads to plow, there’s no street lights, there’s no fire hydrants. This is a quiet green use that give us great tax base.”
Violette said the solar project is allowed in the zone, and it’s doing “the green right thing.” He said the Planning Board just enforces existing ordinances; it doesn’t make the ordinances. The board added the privacy fence as a concession to the Weeks and two other landowners in the area at an extra cost to the developers, Violette said.
“We never want our townspeople to think we’re shoving things down their throats,” he said.
Flewelling said the projects are valuable because they are low impact to social services, such as school bus routes and police protection.
Each project comes with conditions and will need the necessary permits from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and other agencies to move forward.
“We haven’t had any negative feedback,” she said of the solar projects.
But Robin Weeks, who is also the former Somerset County manager, said they moved to the farmhouse in 2010, in part to raise produce for a farmstand they called the Robin’s Nest and in part for the quality of life in the countryside. She said they also would use the house and 14 acres they own, part of the old Fortin Farm, as a retirement investment.
Now, they say, that investment is far less valuable. The assessed value of the property is $132,100, but Robin Weeks said it could have been worth $250,00 on the open real estate market.
Not now, she said.
“I said 30,000 solar panels — that’s a lot,” Robin Weeks said. “It’s literally in our front yard — we’re upset. We’re worried about the market value because our plan is to eventually retire, and to be able to market this property is important. And the view is just beautiful, and we’re not going to be able to have that view anymore.”
Planning for the project began with an environmental hearing in December and the abutters were notified, Flewelling said. But Robin Weeks said they only learned about it when a letter arrived March 21. The Weeks received the notice in December but did not realize the project was set for their front yard and did not act on the letter; they only learned that when Scott Weeks went to the April 1 Planning Board meeting.
The 8-foot-tall visual buffer fence would run from a point past their house, 1,800 feet “straight down” to U.S. Route 201, parallel to a majestic row of tall poplar trees that line their driveway.
Robin Weeks said she is in favor of solar energy, having been program coordinator for Kennebec Valley Community College’s energy service and technology program, which ran solar workshops.
“The technology is great,” she said. “But not in my front yard. I encourage it, but not here in my front yard.”
Flewelling said the developers of the Route 201 project met all of the requirements of the town’s Land Use Ordinance, including requirements for utility-scale solar, adopted in 2016.
“They met every aspect of that ordinance that they needed to meet,” she said. “They still have to get their state permits for conditional use from DEP and DOT. The fence is the last one.”
Flewelling said “it’s plausible” that construction could start this summer on all three projects.
“These are three incredible projects that come with a lot of investment in our community,” Flewelling said. “It’s also rather exciting that most of the folks in Fairfield are going to know — in a scientific way — the power that’s running their house is going to potentially be generated right next door.”
She said, potentially, the solar power generated to electricity could run town departments, local schools and Kennebec Valley Community College.