FREETOWN — Residents of a predominantly black neighborhood on Braley Road are fuming over plans for a solar power project to be built near their homes.
“This is environmental racism; it’s an environmental injustice,” said the Rev. Curtis Dias of Calvary Pentecostal Church. “They call them solar farms, but they’re not farms. I don’t see any vegetables, or gardens, or any animals.”
Dias contends officials are trying to get rid of the town’s only black neighborhood.
“We feel this is the beginning of expository zoning,” he said. “They are encroaching on us, saying the businessman has rights, but what is really happening is they are trying to eliminate us from the community.”
Several Braley Road residents attended a recent Board of Selectmen meeting as well as a public hearing before the Planning Board, where they raised concerns about buffering, setbacks, fencing, and other issues.
Eight years ago, the church, Dias, and 22 other plaintiffs successfully sued the town after salt from a nearby state storage facility contaminated local wells; in that case, the plaintiffs also asserted environmental racism. Dias said that if the solar project is approved at the town level, he will appeal to state officials.
“We don’t have any confidence in the conservation board because of decisions they’ve made in the past,” he said in an interview. “They’re as blind as Ray Charles when it comes to conservation issues like wetland protection.”
“That statement by Reverend Dias is not only insulting, but inflammatory,” Keven Desmarais, chairman of the Freetown Conservation Commission, said about the Ray Charles analogy. “The members of the Conservation Commission volunteer their time for the purpose of enforcing the provisions of the Wetlands Protection Act.”
The applicant in the solar project, Borrego Solar, already owns and operates one solar field on Braley Road and has approval for another. Both are in areas zoned for light industrial use and are owned by Peter Hawes and his family, who lease the land to Borrego Solar.
The newest solar power project would include 4,000 solar panels situated on 6 acres, also owned by Hawes and his family, that is zoned for residential use. Large-scale “ground-mounted solar photovoltaic installations” are allowed in residential-zoned areas, but are subject to site plan review. According to Article 11 of Freetown’s zoning bylaws, “[these] projects cannot be prohibited, but can be reasonably regulated by the building inspector, or if there is none in a town, the board of selectmen, or person or board designated by local ordinance or bylaw.”
Town Administrator Richard Brown said he does not believe racism factors into this matter, but said he did not want to comment further at this point in the process.
Dias said he supports solar power and other alternative energy sources, but having three solar fields within less than 2 miles is unfair to neighboring residents. Separately, a solar power field is also being planned for another residential neighborhood in town, on Locust Street. While that solar farm has not been built yet, it has received all necessary approvals, according to town officials.
“This is about profit over people,” Dias said. “In the history of environmental racism, minority communities are targeted because they don’t have the power of the purse or the political influence to fight.”
In the 2005 lawsuit, the town paid out nearly $300,000 to Calvary Pentecostal Church and the other plaintiffs. When salt from the storage facility contaminated 28 wells, new water lines were installed, but low water pressure was a problem. In addition to the payout, the town agreed to install water pumps, which solved the water pressure issue.
“Hasn’t this neighborhood been through enough?” Dias asked. “Not only are wetlands, waterways, and wildlife being destroyed, but property values are being affected. There is so much undeveloped land in Freetown, so why does it have to go here?”
Dias said the solar field would remove the buffer the undeveloped land now provides between residents’ homes on Braley Road and nearby Route 140.
Hawes, the landowner, said a solar field is “about as low impact as you can get. “I can’t think of anything else that would be lower impact other than leaving it as it is,” he said.
Jared Connell, senior project developer for Borrego Solar, said he believes the ground-mounted solar modules at this location will not have a negative effect on neighbors.
“We will do our best, as we do with all of our projects, to be the best neighbor possible,” he said.
Connell said the 4,000 solar modules will create enough electricity — which will be purchased by the utility NStar — to provide power to about 150 homes a year.
The Planning Board continued the public hearing to Tuesday. In the meantime, the board voted to hire an independent consultant to review the proposal and provide the findings at Tuesday’s meeting.