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Proposed Solar Farm on Falmouth Golf Course Faces Town Meeting Votes

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Eve Zuckoff
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A golfer tees up at Cape Cod Country Club.

When Megan Amsler walks around the Cape Cod Country Club property, she sees the places her kids love.

“I’m not sure what hole this is, but my kids -- we've all sledded on the hill over there,” she called out, walking down toward Coonamessett Pond.

Amsler, who describes herself as a lifelong renewable energy advocate, chairs the Falmouth Energy Committee. When she looks out across the green grass and rolling hills of the golf course, she knows what she’d like to see.

“There would be a sea of [solar] panels out in front of us,” she said. “Absolutely.”

Now, a company named Amp Energy wants to make that a reality. The developer is working on a project to transform 70 of 140 acres on the historic golf course into an energy-production hub.

“We have to look at the fact that we need … renewable energy,” Amsler explained. “It's got to come from somewhere. They're not making any more land.”

But the town is facing hard decisions over what it could take to make way for a massive solar farm, as questions swirl over who this solar developer interested in Cape Cod is, what the company could gain developing on such expensive coastal land, and what the terms of the proposal could mean for the community.

Answers to these questions will help to determine whether the project gets approved.

Who is Amp Energy?

“Amp operates all around the world,” said Jared Donald, head of Amp’s U.S. operations, with our main operations being in the U.S., Japan, India, Australia, Spain and Canada.”

The international company is particularly interested in Massachusetts, Donald said, because of the high cost of electricity and the business incentives in the state’s solar program.

As far as Amp is concerned, the most attractive place to build is on large plots of unfragmented land (rather than across multiple rooftops) because they have the highest bang for their buck, and they’re at such a premium in Eastern Massachusetts.

“We just don't have the amount of land [on Cape Cod] that you do in the western portion of the state. So when we look at the intersection of electricity costs, as well as program availability and the state's goals, then developing in that region is valuable,” he said.

But for Amp to build big -- convert a golf course into a profitable solar farm -- the company wants the town to make a few changes.

What special terms does Amp want the town to accept?

It starts with Amp asking Falmouth to amend two solar siting bylaws.The first change seeks to include the golf course property in what’s called the town’s “solar overlay” district: the town has designated certain areas as being preferred for a solar array. The golf course isn’t currently included in those areas.

The second, more controversial, amendment would reduce the buffer between solar farms and abutting conservation land; it’ll allow the developer to cut down more trees to maximize the solar layout.

In exchange, the company would buy the golf course from the owner, give the land to the town, then lease it back to set up solar panels. While the solar panels are in use, the company has committed to planting pollinator-friendly plants across the property and funding water quality studies in nearby Coonamessett Pond. Then, after 40 years, the town would get to decide what to do with the property.

“As a company, we need to have access to the site for some period of time. In most instances, we want that to be 40 or more years for the use of these projects,” Donald explained. “And on Cape Cod, it’s the first time we've done it in a manner where it's being donated to the town with the intention of conservation.”

If the town doesn’t amend the bylaw, Amp would just lease from the property owner and build smaller. The town would not gain ownership of the land or receive the other potential conservation benefits. The Falmouth Planning Board is unanimously recommending the bylaws be amended this spring at Town Meeting. It will take a two-thirds majority.

But the project has its critics.

What’s the potential downside?

Some critics want guarantees that the electricity from this project -- which in theory could power 1/6th of the town -- would help low and middle income residents with their energy bills.

Also, several environmental groups say they don’t want to see 14 acres of trees cut down to make way for renewable energy.

“Cutting down the trees to create an alternative energy program is a little Orwellian,” said Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod.

A report from Mass Audubon found that over a recent five-year span in Massachusetts, nearly 13.5 acres of natural land were developed every day. About one-quarter of that new development was solar-related.

With that in mind, Gottlieb said, the town should be thinking hard about where it puts new solar panels.

“There’s tons of disturbed land [like] gravel pits; there are tons of rooftops,” Gottlieb said. “There's a lot of solar potential out there still that does not require large-scale tree cutting. We view that they should be [considering] those things first before [they] come for the trees.”

One thing many critics agree on, is that some form of solar development is preferable to housing development, which would mean a loss of open space and potential ecological damage to Coonamessett Pond from septic runoff.

Falmouth Town Meeting is scheduled to begin April 12.