FARMINGTON — Few residents expressed concerns at a public hearing Monday night on a proposed 77-megawatt solar farm that would be built off U.S. Route 2, and one resident spoke in favor of the project.
“I’m just concerned how I’m going to be impacted,” said Scott Cook, who lives on Maple Avenue. The road connects to Baily Hill Road, which intersects Horn Hill Road, a proposed access road to the solar farm by NextEra Energy.
“I want to know if traffic goes by my house, how will I be impacted?” Cook said.
Jonathan Gravel, environmental services project manager for NextEra, said the estimated one-year construction period would bring the heaviest traffic to the area and once the project is built traffic would be “very minimal.”
The town has been in discussions with NextEra since 2017 about the project, which the company says would be the largest solar farm in New England if built. Some residents in the Stanwood Park Circle area have already expressed concerns about the project’s 13 acres of panels in an open field bordering their neighborhood and how they could impact property values.
Ann Marie Comeau, who lives in the neighborhood, said Monday night she has concerns about whether there would be any health impacts associated with the proximity of the panels.
Gravel said it is typical for concerns to arise around the electromagnetic fields of solar farms, but he said the electricity is no different than what comes from dishwashers or microwaves.
“There is no correlation to cancer or other illnesses,” he said. “We will also be burying the transmission underground, rather than overhead. So that’s one way we’ll be minimizing the visual impacts as well as any health impacts.”
Resident Paul Hersey also asked whether the company would be moving the panels further away from the neighborhood, but added after the hearing he is neither for nor against the project.
“I’m kind of neutral,” Hersey said. “I’m just trying to figure out what that field is going to look like for the people who live there.”
The setback from the residences will be about 150 feet, which is more than the company had originally planned for, and NextEra is also planning to add additional vegetative screening around the panels, Gravel said. The company has also moved an inverter from the northern corner of the field near Stanwood Park Circle to the southeast corner, to lessen concerns about noise. The noise levels associated with the project would be about 40 decibels, which Gravel said “is between a quiet office and a library.”
One resident at Monday’s public hearing expressed support for the project.
“It will reduce our tax rate not only for individuals currently in town, but businesses look at a town’s tax rate when they’re making decisions,” said Bill Berry. “Farmington isn’t the cheapest place to open a business, and with a lower tax rate we can start attracting new business.”
Town officials have said they estimate that tax revenue from the project would lower Farmington’s tax rate by about 25 percent. The current tax rate is $19.94 per $1,000 of assessed value.
Berry also said he believed the project would make Farmington’s electricity supply more reliable. However, Gravel said he could not speak to that as the electricity will be fed into a CMP substation and the utilities company is in charge of distribution.
“But more reliable and different sources of electricity can help build a more reliable system in Maine,” he said.
Planning board member Gloria McGraw said later, during the planning board’s regular meeting following the hearing, that she wanted to clarify the solar farm would likely not lower electricity costs for Farmington residents.
“I heard comments again tonight about this project lowering energy costs for Farmington residents, but I don’t think that’s true,” McGraw said. “The way I understand it, it goes in to the grid, but it’s not providing electricity for Farmington.”
McGraw also said she hopes the tax benefits do come to fruition and that they don’t lead to the state reducing the amount of school district funding the area receives.
“I’m surprised,” McGraw said. “People don’t seem really negatively concerned about this project, so I guess that tells me it’s time to shut up and let it go. I hope someday we don’t live to say, ‘Oh, we’re known as the town with the solar project,’ instead of as a wonderful, quaint little college town.”
Florida-based NextEra and its subsidiary, Farmington Solar LLC, have applied for multiple permits through the town as well as with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and Maine Department of Transportation.
There is no timeline for when the town’s planning board could approve or reject the applications, but the company has said it is aiming to start construction in 2019 and have the project completed by 2020.
Rich Jordan, project manager for TRC, a consulting group that worked on the proposed solar power project on Sandy Hill Farm in Farmington, stands in the first location that will have solar panels on Aug. 29. A public hearing Monday provided Farmington residents the opportunity to comment on the proposed 490-acre solar farm. (Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel)