In a unanimous decision, the Falmouth Planning Board on Tuesday, March 16, voted to support the construction of a large-scale solar farm at the 100-year-old Cape Cod Country Club. The fate of the project is now in the hands of Town Meeting members, who will vote the zoning changes required to build the arrays on the 140-acre parcel.
The renewable energy company Amp Energy entered into a lease agreement with owner David Friel for three of the four parcels that comprise the Hatchville golf course. Mr. Friel said he had been looking for a new option after 10 years of declining revenue. He said he was considering building a housing development before the green energy company approached him.
Changes to the zoning bylaw will allow Amp Energy to use more of the land by reducing setback requirements and reconfiguring the property by removing trees. The trees would be replanted at a rate of two-to-one elsewhere on the property.
With the zoning amendments, the solar farm would be a 27 to 30 megawatt project and could account for one-sixth to one-seventh of the entire town’s electrical needs, Amp Energy Consultant Evan Turner said.
More than 100 golfers, residents, environmental groups and other town boards registered both complaints and support of the project during the hearing.
Amp Energy has said it intends to purchase the land and donate the entire 140 acres to the town for permanent conservation. Under the agreement, the company would buy the land, immediately donate all of it to the Town of Falmouth, and then Amp would lease a portion of the land for solar. This would only occur if Town Meeting approves the zoning amendments. Without the changes, Amp Energy said, the project would not be profitable enough to be able to buy the land and it would stay with the lease.
Before the board voted on Tuesday, chairwoman Patricia H. Kerfoot warned members that the purchase is speculative at this point and the intent is to negotiate a purchase if more trees are cleared and the setbacks reduced.
“There is no purchase and sale, only a lease agreement right now,” she said. “While we believe the town will get it after 40 years of the lifespan of the array, we don’t know that for a fact. Amp has verbalized it, but there is nothing in writing to give the town assurances.”
She then argued for the project.
“What we do know is that we like that it would be used for solar and it aligns with the town policy to increase green energy, and that we want to keep open space in that area of town per the local comprehensive plan,” she said.
Amp Energy may go forward with a smaller project with a lease without the zoning changes asked for.
Before the vote, the board heard from more than 100 people airing concerns on both sides. Opponents said they do not want a solar development at the expense of trees that sequester carbon and provide a wildlife habitat. Many local golfers noted the historical aspects of the public course and told the board it is a major recreational asset and tourism driver for the town.
However, the supporters, including abutters, noted the production of green energy, a cleaner Coonamessett Pond free from fertilizer and chemical runoff from the course, and the preference for a solar array over another project, such as a large housing development that would add nitrogen into local aquifer.
Before the 7-0 vote, several board members voiced their support.
“The Friels want to sell. It would be nice if it were to stay as a golf course, but it’s not going to,” board member Charlotte Harris said.
“The use is going to change and the alternatives have been made clear: either housing or solar. Trees will be lost, and that is a sadness but it is a longstanding policy of this board to protect the aquifer and this parcel is in the heart of the aquifer. It is no place for the amount of sewer that would be required for a housing project,” she said. “Trees will grow back but the water will probably never be as clean.”
Board member Robert Leary said the town does not need more single-family homes, especially on the golf course property.
“What we really need is more rentals and we want them as close to the village center as we can, as opposed to creating more sprawl,” he said.
Mr. Leary followed up by noting if a developer built 150 to 200 homes, it would create more stress on Route 151 traffic.
“It’s already a dangerous road. We don’t need 150 to 300 more cars accessing it,” he said.
Board member James Fox said he did not understand the reasoning behind the opposition to the plan, considering the land is zoned agriculture/residential and can be built on right away.
“We received many letters from town agencies that weighed on in this, talking about preservation, but I believe there are 45 lots that can be built right away. That would be devastating to the whole town,” he said.
After the hearing was closed at the March 9 meeting, the board unanimously voted to support Article 22 that includes the course in the town’s solar overlay district, which was created to encourage solar on already disturbed land. With this week’s affirmative vote, Town Meeting will also consider whether to approve reducing to no less than 35 feet from 100 feet the buffer between conservation land and a solar array. The article also allows more tree-cutting to not more than four acres, or 10 percent of the parcel, whichever is less. Mitigation by replanting double the amount taken down would be required.