By Michelle Murdock, Contributing Writer
Southborough – “Good idea, good project, bad location,” said Robert Meyer, director of Finance and Business Operations at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, when asked to summarize neighbors’ feedback on the school’s proposed plan for solar panel installation.
Residents were invited to an information session July 30 to familiarize the school’s “immediate neighbors” with the current design and plan for the installation of a solar photovoltaic array on a portion of the school’s property that abuts Sears Road.
In addition to Meyer, the preliminary system design and screening plan was presented to abutters by Beth Greenblatt, managing director of Beacon Integrated Solutions, an independent energy management solutions firm, a representative from Solar City, the proposed installer, and the school’s environmental sustainability coordinator and science teacher Lindsey Lohwater.
Lohwater spoke about the proposed project’s connection to the science curriculum at St. Mark’s, the learning opportunity presented by the entire planning process, and the fact that this type of project is in line with peer schools, citing New York-based Millbrook School’s solar field.
Greenblatt spoke about the process, the selection of SolarCity as the installer, and the “exhaustive review of designs” which aimed to create an end result that fit in with the character of the community and also was in keeping with the goals of the school.
The representative from SolarCity described his firm as being “fractions away from being the largest installer” and detailed some of the specifics of the plan, including fencing, screening, location and size of the panels.
However, after listening to all of presenters, most, if not all, of the abutters and residents at the meeting objected to the location as the current plan calls for the panels to be installed on land owned by St. Mark’s that is closest to Sears Road and furthest from the school.
“Abutters will not support it,” said resident Michael Mills. “Where are you going to put it when it fails?”
“I see a very good effort on your part today,” said another abutter. “The school is handling it the right way, it’s a great idea for the school, but there is probably a better location for the town.”
“It’s going to look like an industrial building from Sears Road,” echoed another.
“We do want to support you,” said resident David McCay, “but this is a commercial-grade project on one of the most prestigious roads in Massachusetts.”
Other concerns cited included the effect on property values, the effect on the town’s tax base, and, for one resident who was not an abutter, the impact on the local environment and its wildlife.
Residents of Sears Road also said they would have preferred not being presented with only one plan rather than two or three alternatives so that St. Mark’s could work with residents to find a consensus that would work for both parties.
“Let us work with you to figure this out,” said Miller. “We’ll help you figure this out the right way. I’ll volunteer to help, but not with the way it is right now.”
Meyer responded to residents’ concerns saying that this is what St. Mark’s wanted to hear: input and feedback.
“We don’t view it the same way,” said Meyer, “but we’re open to looking at relocating it.”
In order to make the project economically feasible for St. Marks, however, it must have a convenient connection to three-phase power which is why the current location next to Sears Road was selected.
In a July 16 letter sent to abutters prior to the meeting, Meyer wrote, “An important tenet of St. Mark’s mission is our dedication to achieving environmental stewardship through innovative and creative strategies. While constructing a solar photovoltaic array is one important step toward achieving that goal, we are also committed to working in harmony with our neighbors and community as a whole.”
The project has yet to go before Southborough’s Planning Board and Meyer could not confirm a specific date when that would happen. In the interim, he said the plan is to entertain, listen and attempt to address the concerns raised in the meeting.