The Falmouth Planning Board has received close to 100 letters from citizens, golfers and community groups commenting on the proposal to convert the Cape Cod Country Club into a solar farm.
Since the hearing on the project was opened two weeks ago, board members have read 72 letters in support and 23 in opposition regarding a proposed 30-megawatt solar farm on the 140-acre parcel. They had previously received 20 letters on the topic.
“It’s not a popularity contest,” chairwoman Patricia H. Kerfoot said regarding the volume of letters. “We are looking at these letters to know how the town is thinking and stimulate our own questioning when contemplating our recommendation to Town Meeting.”
For green energy developer Amp Energy to create the size of solar farm it is proposing, amendments are needed to the zoning bylaws allowing for more trees to be cut and setbacks to abutting land reduced. Also, the land would have to be rezoned as part of the town’s solar overlay district. These amendments will go to Town Meeting, but not before the planning board decides to recommend them or not.
Course owner David Friel said the shrinking of the golf course industry, combined with more courses built on Cape Cod in the last decade, forced him to consider other options for his property and he landed on selling to private residential developers. Then he was put in touch with Amp Energy and he has since been working on a lease agreement or a purchase with the company.
After the prior planning board meeting on February 23, when the board received comments in opposition from several groups including The 300 Committee Land Trust, the Falmouth Zoning Board of Appeals and the Cape Cod Climate Change Collaborative, the developers decided to amend the zoning changes they were asking for.
Attorney Robert H. Ament presented the revised Article 21.
Article 21 now limits reduced setback to no less than 35 feet and only when it abuts conservation land. Before, the setback reduction was unlimited.
Mr. Ament revised the tree-cutting to not more than four acres, or 10 percent of the parcel, whichever is less. The original amendment said no more than 20 percent of the lot or two acres can be deforested. Mitigation by replanting trees is now at a rate of double the area that is removed.
The solar developer would likely still do the project without the zoning changes, Mr. Ament said, but it would be half the size and would not be profitable enough for the company to buy the land. It would instead lease it.
Evan Turner of Amp Energy said that if the zoning changes are approved, Amp Energy will purchase the land from Mr. Friel and give it to the town immediately, and lease it from the town for the solar farm. At the end of the project, estimated to last 40 years, the town could turn it into conservation in perpetuity.
“Right now, Amp has a lease in place for three of the parcels of the property. With the additional acreage created from the acreage with the zoning amendments, the energy output would be so much greater and the financial return would allow them to purchase it,” he said.
Instead of reading all the letters at the public hearing conducted via Zoom Tuesday night, the board opted to summarize sentiments of the opposition to and those in support of the solar farm.
The support registered noted the production of a green energy source; preservation of water quality as a solar array does not add nitrogen and phosphorus to waterways as a housing development would; cleaner Coonamessett Pond and other waterways from prohibiting fertilizers and other chemicals on the land; the possibility of 140 acres of preserved land in lieu of a housing development; and planting more trees than are cut down.
Mr. Turner agreed to maintain the existing tree line around the pond, fund a long-term water quality research project on the pond, create a system of trails near the pond, preserve a sledding hill, provide reforestation offsets, and eliminate the need for herbicides by planting wildflowers at the base of the arrays.
Board member Charlotte Harris said many of the letters emphasized that the golf course is in the middle of Falmouth’s largest water resource district, right on top of the aquifer.
“It’s Coonamessett Pond, Deep Pond, Crooked Pond and the abutters to all these ponds are solidly in favor of the solar array,” she said.
While the opposition is concerned with losing trees that will be planted and grow back, the supporters are concerned with the degradation of water quality, which will improve with a solar array on the land.
“It has to do with preserving the water quality entirely. I want to say these points are emphasized in the letters and they are very persuasive.”
Ms. Kerfoot then summarized the opposition.
“They are opposed to deforestation, want to keep the 100-year-old historic golf course as a recreational asset, and the property is the antithesis of the original intent of the solar overlay district, which is to use disturbed/blighted properties,” she said.
Board member James Fox responded to point out the solar arrays fit into the town’s comprehensive plan.
“We received an awful lot of letters from town boards and they really did not take into consideration the long-term local comprehensive plan. That goal has always been to increase the lot sizes out here and prevent development. I think a lot of the groups forgot that plan that we all voted on and are working on. I don’t know why they jumped to the conclusion it’s a bad thing when if we didn’t do it, houses could be built there right away,” Ms. Kerfoot said.
The board closed the hearing and recommended Article 22, which amends the zoning map to include the parcel in the large-scale, ground-mounted solar overlay district. The planning board will vote on Article 21, which changes the setbacks and tree-cutting parameters, at its next meeting.