Cumberland council OKs solar farm, mulls garage move

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CUMBERLAND — Despite concerns from neighbors about visual impacts, the Town Council on Monday voted unanimously to move forward with an agreement to install a solar farm off Drowne Road.

The same Village Green residents – many of whom packed into a standing-room-only council chamber – also had concerns about when the Public Works garage and related facilities near them will be moved. A neighborhood meeting on that matter preceded the meeting.

Town Manager Bill Shane will execute a solar panel purchase agreement with ReVision Energy, which will build the array on a capped landfill bordered by Drowne Road, Public Work, the Town Forest and the Drowne Road Apartments.

To the west of the site is also the multi-phase Village Green development project, being undertaken by Bateman Partners. Phases 1 and 3, already complete, include 59 houses and the conversion of the Drowne Road School to senior apartments.

In Phase 2, which is stalled, Public Works – along with a school bus building, salt shed and compost pad – would be moved to an as-yet-undetermined location. A mix of residential housing, a mixed-use building and a town square would be built in the vacated space, something many Village Green residents said they expected to happen by now.

Other projects have delayed that phase, Shane said, but finding a new Public Works location has also stymied progress. Town officials have eyed vacant town-owned land bordered by Tuttle Road and the Town Forest, as well as a piece of Cumberland Fairgrounds property, as potential sites, but both plans have not moved forward.

Councilors noted that few people want such a facility in their backyard.

The relocation could take place in two phases, Shane said.

The first would address the elements of the Public Works site least desired to neighbors – the salt shed and compost pad – by moving those first. That phase could cost $1.5 million, depending on site selection, Shane explained.

“I think in the next two years we could do that,” he said.

The second phase, moving the rest of the complex, could cost $4.5 million. 

“Honestly, I don’t know when we could fit that in,” Shane said. “I’m hoping to do it in the five-year window; I can’t tell you.”

On the brighter side, new construction in Phase 2 would help offset the Public Works project by adding value to the tax rolls, Shane said.

That did little to comfort Village Green residents wondering how much longer they’ll have to deal with issues from the site like noise, flies and mice, and bad odors.

“We feel for you folks,” Councilor Ron Copp told the audience. “You guys have an industrial business in the middle of a residential neighborhood now. … I can’t tell you when it’s going to happen; I can tell you it will happen someday.”

‘Salt in the wound’

Katherine Pelletreau of Drowne Road lamented the one-two punch from the Public Works project and the location of a solar array in her neighborhood.

“It feels a little bit like salt in the wound here,” she told the council. “Because we’ve got some challenges around the timing of the removal of the most egregious parts of the … Public Works facility, and yet we’re being re-burdened as a community with this new project, too.”

Like several of her neighbors, Pelletreau said she supported the solar panel proposal itself, but not the location. She was dismayed no other site was considered and asked to have any future arrays be placed elsewhere.

“I appreciate the efforts to at least move (the solar farm) to the back of the site, as opposed to right along the sidewalk,” Pelletreau said.

ReVision last month proposed a $1.1 million array, with 1,376 panels that generate about 617,000 kilowatt-hours annually. While the company had proposed the solar farm be built closer to Drowne Road, the town has called for it to be located farther back on the landfill, closer to the Town Forest.

Additional costs of up to $90,000, which Shane hopes to reduce by the time the agreement is signed, include fencing, landscaping, and additional cable used to locate the array toward the forest.

Should major changes to the agreement be required, Shane will bring the document back to the Town Council June 4 for approval. The project will later go before the Planning Board.

To take advantage of federal renewable energy tax credits and reduce expenses, the array would be sold through a power purchase agreement to an outside investor. The town would pay that solar group instead of Central Maine Power, according to Shane.

When the tax credits expire in about six years, the town could purchase the array for about $663,000, according to ReVision’s proposal.

The municipality could then have free electricity for the life of the array, which could be 40 years. The town could save $2.4 million as a result, according to Eric Fitz of the Cumberland Climate Action Team, which has worked with the town in developing the project.

Many communities choose a landfill for such a project, he said, because “it literally cannot be used for any other purpose other than a project like this. It can never be built on for residential housing; you can’t build a business on top of it.”

“The land right now is considered a liability, and through this project it becomes an asset,” Fitz added.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Shown is the planned alignment of a solar panel array at a capped landfill off Drowne Road in Cumberland. The town’s Public Works facility is to the west, along with neighboring Village Green housing development. The Drowne Road Apartments are to the north.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.