Attorneys argue school solar project

Decision to be rendered in March
Fri, 02/17/2017 - 9:45am

“This is not a nice thing to do to us.”

That’s what abutter Cathy Payne said at the Planning Board hearing regarding the Block Island School’s proposed installation of a 142-panel solar array along the northern lot line of the school’s High Street property. Payne, who feels that the array would infringe on her property, has waged stiff opposition to the project, along with her attorney, Thomas Tarro, before the town’s various boards.

The Planning Board will discuss how a motion regarding the school’s solar application should be phrased at its next meeting on March 8. According to clerk Jennifer Brady, the Planning Board would then render a decision on the motion at a later date.

The Planning Board, which approved a development plan review in May of 2016, was hearing the application for a second time due to Payne’s appeal of the approval to the Zoning Board. On Nov. 16, the Zoning Board found that the Planning Board ruled in error by approving the application without including written comments from an enumerated list of town officials and commissions.  

The Feb. 8 Planning Board meeting was at times contentious, with Joe Priestley, the school’s attorney, and Tarro, Payne’s attorney, arguing back and forth, while presenting real estate appraisers to testify on the record. Priestley argued that the Planning Board had already approved the project, and that it would provide energy savings and an educational opportunity for students, while Tarro called it an “industrial size” solar array that would encroach upon, and devalue, his client’s property.

Tarro repeatedly asked if anyone could give him an answer on the number of panels associated with the project. Later in the discussion, Block Island School Superintendent Judy Lundsten told Planning Board member Dennis Heinz that there would be 94 fixed panels and 48 adjustable panels on the array, for a total of 142 solar panels, which caused an audience member to remark, “Wow! That’s a lot.”

Lundsten said that the proposed array would serve two essential functions: saving the school $16,000 per year in energy costs, while also being used for educational purposes. 

At one point Priestley butted heads with real estate appraiser James Houle, who cited published data arguing that the array would adversely impact the value of Payne’s property. Houle compared the situation to having a substation adjacent to a residential property, which can also reduce abutting property values by 15 to 20 percent.

“I believe the dollar impact on the Payne property would be somewhere in the range of about $200,000,” said Houle. “And I feel (the application) fails to really satisfy what would be the requirements of any type of an approval.”

Priestley asked Houle to produce the data substantiating his claims regarding the adverse impact of substations. “Can I see it?” asked Priestley. Houle then scrambled back to his seat, and submitted the excerpted information as part of his report as an exhibit to clerk Jennifer Brady.

Houle said siting of the proposed solar array was an “improper setting in a school district,” provides an “inadequate buffer” for abutters, poses a “potential danger” to people, and would “add to a diminution of the value of Cathy Payne’s property.” He also said that for “all of the properties” that he has investigated, solar panels “are not put in residential zones.”

“This is going to be a fairly visible line of solar panels,” said Houle, who noted that the danger of solar arrays is the electricity that runs through the panels. Houle also said that the solar panels would be sited within 10 feet of Payne’s property, which he termed as “extreme proximity.”

Town Solicitor Don Packer informed the Planning Board that Houle “would never qualify as a solar expert,” and that the board did not necessarily have to listen to his testimony on that subject.

During the meeting, Payne said her “grandfather, and his two brothers, gave the land” that the Block Island School was constructed on. She also said that her family enjoys watching children play on the property where the solar array would be sited.

Roberta McCormick, who opposes the project, said that the school would be “creating a wall” with the solar panels, and “that’s really unfair.” She said that’s “not the way to treat the benefactor of the land.”

“I agree with Roberta,” said resident John Warfel. “The school is not being a good neighbor by putting the panels there. I think it’s time that the School Committee rethinks the whole plan.”

Bobbie Reynolds, who lives next door to Payne, said, “Our property value is going to plummet” if this array is installed. “No one will want to sit on a deck and look at that.” She said that the school solar array should be sited somewhere else.

The next Planning Board meeting is scheduled for March 8 at 4 p.m. The school’s solar application will be discussed during that meeting.