Holliston officials are seeking restitution from a company that had about 100 trees on town-controlled land along the Upper Charles Trail cut down during work for a 1.75-megawatt solar power array.
Solect Energy Development, based in Hopkinton, is installing the array in the Hopping Brook industrial park. An official said last week the trees were removed because the company mistakenly thought it had the town’s permission to clear the site up to the adjacent biking and walking trail. The local stretch of the regional recreational trail begins at the Milford line, and continues east through town.
“We take full responsibility for these areas; they were mistakenly impacted,” James Dumas, a Solect principal, said in a phone interview. “We were under a wrongful assumption that we had the town’s permission to clear up to the trail itself.”
Jay Marsden, vice chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said the town’s Trails Committee is working to obtain an assessment of the value of the trees that were removed. The company has already met with the committee to discuss making restitution.
Dumas said Solect’s assumption about removing the trees stemmed from discussions with the town’s Planning Board about providing access to the trail from a public parking area that it is building for trail users, and about installing new landscaping as screening for the solar panel field.
If the company was not going to be clearing the adjacent land, Dumas said, “Why would there be screening? The point of confusion was the ambiguity of what was said, or wasn’t said.”
Town officials say they haven’t found any indication that anyone gave the company permission, orally or in writing, to cut down the trees.
Solect had to obtain a special permit for the project from the Planning Board, and clearance from the town’s Conservation Commission, said Matt Varrell, secretary for the Trails Committee, which was created to oversee the local rail trail’s development.
“I don’t know what they were thinking, to be honest with you,” Varrell said.
The cutting effectively turned a shaded portion of the trail into full sun, he said.
“Personally, I was extremely disappointed that a company would not know better than to trespass onto someone else’s property, especially the town’s property, and do that much work,” Varrell said.
The town leases the former railroad right of way from the CSX Corp., with its property extending 33 feet on either side of the recreational trail, Varrell said. Early last month, a contractor hired by Solect to clear the company’s 14-acre site for the power-generating panels continued past its property line and up to the edge of the dirt trail, he said.
The clear-cutting removed several mature trees that provided a shaded canopy for trail users.
Town officials say they counted 100 stumps, some of them more than 2 feet in diameter and 60 feet tall.
Rolf Briggs, a former Trails Committee member, said the clearing ruined the shaded aesthetics of the stretch of trail.
“Now the trail is destroyed,” he said. “The canopy would grow on both sides of that trail. You had a nice, cool tunnel. You had a nice wildlife habitat. And they destroyed that.”
As for the company’s statement that it thought it had permission, Briggs said he was at a Planning Board meeting in which Solect representatives were specifically told to not cut down any trees on the trail.
“I don’t have that recollection or that knowledge at all,” said Dumas. He said the company wanted to remove the trees because they cast shade on a portion of its property, acknowledging that “shade and solar are not friends,” but said doing it without the town’s permission was an unintentional error.
Company officials have met with the Trails Committee to begin to discuss how to remediate the damage, he said, and added, “We’re committed to working that out.”
An initial conversation, according to Varrell, called for the company to pay for improvements to the trail, including landscaping, along a 2,000-foot section that is passable but is not finished with the compacted stone dust seen in other areas.
Meanwhile, several dozen pine trees on the other side of the trail, also on town land, have been marked by the company with bright pink tape; Solect is seeking town permission to lop off the tops of those trees to increase the sunlight hitting its solar panels. The Trails Committee is expected to discuss the request within the next month, Varrell said.
“It’s our job to maintain that property,” said Marsden, the Board of Selectmen’s vice chairman. “How it happened, I don’t know.”
The Trails Committee will have to establish what it feels will make the town whole, and then present that to the company.
“There’s no other alternative,” Marsden said. “You don’t want to just stop the project.”