Planning Board: Give us a chance to do our job

By Andrea Ray | Aug 23, 2017
Photo by: Andrea Ray

Rochester — Rochester’s Planning Board chair Arnie Johnson had one message for residents at the board’s August 22 meeting: "Give us a chance to do our job."

The request came following protests against two projects under review by the board: the proposed solar farm at the intersection of Mendell and Rounseville Road, and Rochester Farms, a planned farmers’ market on Marion Road.

"I just want to make it clear that everyone is getting mad over a lot of things that haven’t been decided yet," Johnson said. "The way that the process works is that someone submits a project, we make our recommendations, and often the project looks very different by the time we approve it. ... Have some faith in us, and faith that we’ll do our job."

Borrego Solar’s planned installation at the corner of Mendell and Rounseville Road has received strong pushback from abutters and concerned residents. The project proposes clear-cutting seven acres of trees for a berm, erecting an eight-foot fence and putting up 9,000 solar panels over 13 acres of ground on the 67-acre property. At past meetings, residents expressed concerns that the project would ruin the rural nature of the area.

"We have lots of solar farms here already, as well as farms lined up and wanting to move in," argued Dale Bindas of 14 Mendell Road. "We have a bylaw that says that rural character must be preserved. What does it take to say ‘permit denied?'"

Board member Mike Murphy countered: It's easy to deny a permit.

"Everyone has their own interpretation of the bylaws," he continued. "Are you guys ready to go to court on this?"

Many attendees nodded and said "yes," saying that they had nothing to lose.

But Johnson reminded them: "We denied a cell tower in Rochester six times and we took it to court. Eventually, the judge told us, 'pick the spot, or I will.' We had absolutely no control over any of it after that. That’s how we ended up with a cell tower on Bowen’s Lane. We can’t unreasonably deny something because we don’t personally like it or feel it isn’t in the character of the town."

"If you take this to court, the judge may decide that Borrego can do whatever it pleases there, without any restrictions at all," Johnson continued. "Right now, we have the chance to regulate the conditions and restrictions on the project, which the board hasn’t even fully addressed yet."

The theme continued as neighbors expressed concerns about Rochester Farms on Marion Road. The planned farmers market includes four acres of building development on 60 acres, 56 of which would be agricultural fields and wetlands.

Abutter Marion Cutler, whose house faces the project’s driveway, remained frustrated. "This is a commercial venture in a residential area," she said.

When Johnson asked her if she’d prefer a solar field, she nodded. "Honestly, right now I’d almost rather have those," she agreed.

"You might want to move out of Rochester, then," board member Mike Murphy joked.

A representative reported the Cutlers’ concerns on lighting and a lack of information on what the non-retail building on the property would be used for, or what restrictions were in place for the front retail building.

Johnson refuted this, saying property owner Craig Canning "has been very clear about the buildings’ uses. The Zoning Board of Appeals has in fact told him what he can and cannot sell there, and restricted his hours of operation."

"The Planning Board hasn’t deliberated so much on these issues," he added. "Usually these questions come later. Right now, all of the questions are coming from raw data. The trouble with that is that we haven’t even made any recommendations based on that raw data, and people are still getting upset with what they think has already been decided."

Sara Johnston, of 120 Marion Road, noted that she supported the agricultural project. She did observe, "Although I support the project, I wish people would look at this as a reality, rather than the vision that is being sold. This is an industrial complex. There’s an asphalt ring around it as wide as Route 105. I don’t understand why something isn’t being done to make it look more like a real agricultural site."

“Do you have ideas?” Johnson asked her. “It’s all up to [Canning], but you’re certainly welcome to submit ideas you have.”

Johnston agreed to submit her ideas for the next meeting, slated for September 12.

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