Survey of solar site in Shutesbury prompts questions

  • Audience members in ceremonial dress applaud at a meeting of the Shutesbury Planning Board in June. gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Thursday, July 14, 2016

SHUTESBURY — Even before an archaeological report is filed with the Planning Board that will show whether a proposed site for a large-scale solar array is a Native American burial ground, critics are calling its contents into question because experts in tribal history have not been allowed onto the 30-acre property.

Despite requests from representatives of the Narragansett and Wampanoag Indian tribes’ historic preservation offices to the Planning Board to visit the Pratt Corner Road site where the 6-megawatt solar project would be built, the attorney for property owner W.D. Cowls Inc. issued a trespass notice prohibiting them from going onto the land.

And Planning Board members said at their meeting Monday, which drew nearly 20 concerned residents, that conditions they set in issuing a permit for the project in June prohibit mandating access by a tribal historic preservation officer.

Thomas Lesser, the Northampton attorney representing Shutesbury residents, said he wants the town to follow the guidelines established by the U.S. Department of the Interior and meet the standards for the identification and evaluation of historic properties.

“If Cowls wanted to be cooperative, it would simply allow Native American people to go on the land and this whole issue would be resolved very quickly,” Lesser said following the hour-long meeting.

But Michael Pill, the Shutesbury attorney representing Lake Street Development, of Chicago, said the trespass notice was necessary, describing those who have long opposed the solar arrays as using “every trick in the book to kill this project.”

“In more than 30 years as an attorney I’ve never seen people go onto a development site without permission,” Pill said.

The Planning Board required the developer to hire an archaeologist to survey the land before the company moves forward with plans for the solar installation.

On June 22, Planning Board member Jeffrey Lacy, the board’s hired expert, Eric Johnson, director of archaeological services at the University of Massachusetts department of anthropology, the developer’s consultant and W.D. Cowls and Lake Street representatives conducted a five-hour survey on the property.

But this occurred without representatives for Native American tribes, who say they need to see the site to examine it for potential burial grounds.

At stake is the accuracy of the survey and the report mandated by the Planning Board, which is not yet complete, said Shutesbury resident Miriam DeFant, a spokeswoman for the Alliance for Appropriate Development.

“Our concern is that the survey was conducted without the tribal historic preservation officers,” DeFant said.

Lacy said town counsel Donna MacNicol informed the board that it might overstep its authority if it allowed a third-party review and access to the site.

“It’s the best we can do,” Lacy said.

Doug Harris, preservationist for ceremonial landscapes for the Narragansett Indian tribe, offered his services to the Planning Board for a $500 fee. Harris said he would walk the land and determine if there is evidence of a burial ground.

But Harris said it will be difficult to render an opinion if he is excluded from a site visit and has to evaluate photographs and other data collected by Johnson.

“My skills are not psychic,” Harris said. “But those who do have those skills might be able to see more deeply into what’s happening and the ancestors who may or may not be in the ground.”

Bettina Washington, tribal historical preservation officer at the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, said the report will be flawed if no input from an Indian tribe is permitted.

“You’re not going to get your answer unless the tribes are involved,” Washington said.

Still, the Planning Board unanimously agreed to hire Harris as a second consultant, though he said the conditions might be too restrictive for him to do the work.

Michael Suter, another member of the alliance, said he remains critical of the Planning Board for engineering the permit so as to prohibit Native Americans from going on the site.

“It feels disingenuous to me,” Suter said.

Sarah Kohler, the New Salem resident who earlier suggested the property might be a burial ground, said it was unfair for Pill to describe people as trespassing on the site, and that issuing a blanket trespass order was a gratuitous backlash response to the speculation about the use of the site as a burial ground.

“To take advantage of its cultural features is not a trespass,” Kohler said, adding that she has been documenting sites photographically for indigenous peoples “that attest to their presence in the landscape.”


Meanwhile, the Alliance for Appropriate Development and Environment Watch Massachusetts recently issued a statement calling on Judith Judson, the state’s commissioner of the Department of Energy Resources, to change policies because subsidies for alternative energy projects are leading to destruction of the environment, Native American heritage sites and water supply protection land. The groups cited the Shutesbury project, along with those in Plymouth, Shirley and Freetown.

“It’s not clean and green energy when industrial solar projects clear-cut forests, destroy Native American archaeological sites and strip water supply protection areas. This is a boondoggle,” said Meg Sheehan, campaign coordinator and attorney for Environment Watch in a statement.

“Big corporations make huge profits from ratepayer and taxpayer subsidies for false green energy that destroys our natural resources and heritage.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.