Shutesbury solar project advances, but not without opposition

  • Jeffrey Lacy, who is a member of the Shutesbury Planning Board, speaks during a meeting of the board last June at Town Hall, where they voted to approve a special permit requested by Lake Street Development to build a 30-acre solar installment of Pratt Corner Road. JERREY ROBERTS—

Staff Writer
Saturday, April 01, 2017

SHUTESBURY — A controversial project to build a 6.2-megawatt solar array on a 30-acre parcel off Pratt Corner Road is moving forward again after the Planning Board recently agreed that the developer has successfully completed archaeological studies that are a condition of a special permit issued in June.

But those studies are insufficient for some concerned with the project.

Opponents, worried that it may be going up on a site used for Native American burials or ceremonies, say the two archeological studies completed for Lake Street Development of Chicago, and submitted to the Planning Board, don’t meet conditions that demand a surface survey of the land be complete. A Traditional Cultural Properties Assessment, they say, must be done that meets federal Department of Interior standards.

“From my perspective, the condition was written in a vague way, and that has created a lot of confusion,” said Miriam DeFant, a Pratt Corner Road resident who is seeking a position on the Planning Board at this spring’s town elections. “A lot of residents feel like this wasn’t what was promised.”

The surveys indicate that the so-called Wheelock Tract, owned by W.D. Cowls, Inc., is not a Native American burial ground or a sacred site for native peoples.

Planning Board member Jeff Lacy sad in an email that the first pre-construction condition was met, subject to a review of revised drainage plans by Tighe and Bond, which is working as a consultant to the board. But he cautioned that other pre-construction conditions that must also be met before the solar project commences.

For Michael Pill, whose law firm Green Miles Lipton of Northampton represents Lake Street, the Planning Board action proves conclusively that the arguments about the land being used by natives “to put it politely, are inaccurate and unfounded.”

DeFant said because Local Tribal Historic Preservation Officers have been prohibited from accessing the land, and there have been inconsistencies between the surveys by Lake Street and a private consultant working for the Planning Board about how many mounds are on the site, and what these mounds are, the accuracy can be questioned.

Over the summer, a report was filed by Jessica Schumer, of SWCA Environmental. Consultants hired by Lake Street. Schumer determined that what was suggested to be a set of burial mounds is actually root balls from trees knocked over years ago. The archaeologist hired by the town, Eric Johnson of the University of Massachusetts, agreed with that assessment, but noted that the report had “significant shortcomings” regarding methodology and said the land should be reviewed by a representative from a Native American tribe in New England.

Representatives of the Narragansett and Wampanoag Indian tribes’ historic preservation offices asked to evaluate the land, but were instead issued trespass notices to stay off the property.

Marnin Lebovitz, a principal with Lake Street, promised to beef up the survey to satisfy the Planning Board.

DeFant said the Planning Board has taken an inflexible opposition and left no room for compromise, and that there will not be time to evaluate the survey and the data, possibly until the solar project construction is already underway.

Pill said that calling the Lake Street archeologists and peer review archeologists report insufficient is “vicious, racist arrogance.”

Calls to Lake Street officials were not returned Thursday.

Meanwhile, a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in August by three Shutesbury and two New Salem residents against the developers and the town planners who approved the project remains unsettled.

The lawsuit contends that these laws, including U.S. Department of Interior codes, equal protection and freedom of religious and personal expression rules under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, as well as Indian land deeds of Hampshire County, require access to religious land that could be destroyed.

The plaintiffs have asked for a standard assessment of suspected burials and Native American relics, and for some form of restored access to the proposed site for religious practices.

Pill said Lake Street is waiting for judge’s decision, but no injunction is in place that would prevent construction.

The project could bring the town about $50,000 a year, as well as supplying more green energy to the power grid.

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