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Massive Solar Farm Proposed in Falmouth Moves Closer to Reality, Dividing Community

Solar panels gather sunlight in Florida.
John Raoux
Solar panels gather sunlight in Florida.

The town of Falmouth is one step closer to approving a huge solar farm on land owned by the Cape Cod Country Club that could provide the community with more than one-sixth of its electricity needs, the developer said.

The renewable energy company Amp Energy wants to lease 80 of the historic golf course’s 150 acres from owner David Friel, who decided to repurpose the land after a decade of declining revenue. But the solar developer needs the Falmouth Planning Board to amend a crucial solar-siting bylaw so that the company can maximize solar output on the land, making it financially viable.

On Tuesday night, the Planning Board took it's first action, and unanimously voted in the company’s favor by agreeing to include the golf course in the town’s solar overlay district, which was initially designed to encourage solar development only on public and town-preferred land.

Now, Amp Energy representatives say the company is willing and technically able to put up a solar array on “three major parcels” on the golf course, but town planners will reconvene on March 16 to decide whether to recommend revising the key solar-siting bylaw. Recommended changes to that bylaw would be sent for final approval to Town Meeting members this spring, where a two-thirds’ vote would be needed to enact them.

Amp Energy wants those revisions to include reducing the required buffer between conservation land and a solar array from 100 feet to 35 feet. The company is also asking for permission to clear 12 acres of trees on the property. In exchange, company officials say, they would plant at least 22 acres elsewhere, nearly doubling their initial mitigation efforts. If their terms are met, Amp Energy and the town would enter into a deal that Amp has coined a “purchase conserve.” Under the unique agreement, the company would buy the land on the golf course from Friel, immediately donate all of it to the town of Falmouth, and then Amp would lease a portion of the land for solar.

“[The company] hopes — it’s not certain — to be able to do a solar project on the golf course with those parcels put into the solar overlay district and expects that would generate around 17 megawatts of power, a very, very substantial project even under the present bylaw,” Bob Ament, the attorney representing Amp Energy, told the board.

“However,” Ament added, “with the additional acreage that would be available for the solar array with the changes we’ve suggested, the energy output would be substantially greater — even though there will be no net decrease, in fact, an increase in forested area. We’d get to 37, maybe even 30 megawatts as the estimate. That’s a very significant difference. And the financial return under that circumstance is very different. It would allow Amp to purchase the property and not just the little various parcels that are owned by the golf club that wouldn’t necessarily be developed for solar.”

If the town doesn’t amend the bylaws the way Amp wants, then Amp representatives say the company would still be able to create a solar project, but it wouldn’t be as significant. Also, the company would not be likely to purchase the land and exercise the purchase and conserve agreement; instead, Amp would lease a smaller portion of the land for the solar arrays from the owner, and the town would lose out on the conservation benefits, including one stipulation that after 40 years, the town could decide whether to take over the entirety of the property, take down the solar array, and turn it all into conservation land.

“It’s a better project if it can be more efficient and larger,” Ament said.

When the project was last discussed publicly in February, the town received 17 letters in opposition and 3 letters in support. Prior to this week’s meeting, the town received an additional 72 letters in support and 23 in opposition, though planners noted it’s not a popularity contest.

Fierce opposition has come from some environmental groups that say they don’t want to see solar development at the expense of forestland because of the benefit trees provide for carbon storage, wildlife, and air quality. On the other hand, renewable energy advocates, environmentalists, and direct abutters have described what they call enormous benefits to using this land for a large-scale solar array, rather than a housing project or golf course, which would exacerbate nitrogen and fertilizer runoff into local waters.

These alternatives to the solar array, they warn, may not allow the environment to be as resilient. They cite scenarios where “the water quality is likely to be ruined for a very long time,” said Planning Board member Charlotte Harris, “if not permanently.”

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.