“God was the first environmentalist,” Dias will say. “He created all of this, and I am a man of God. I want to preserve his creations.”
But the industrial-sized solar farms — each with roughly 4,000 panels — represent to Dias the continuation of what he called a history of discrimination and environmental injustice against the Cape Verdean community living on Freetown’s Braley Road.
Led by Dias, the town’s only minority community has been fighting for more than 30 years against what it sees as town-supported industry encroaching on the small residential area.
But this time, at least, town officials say their hands are tied by a zoning bylaw written five years ago that had unintended consequences, effectively removing their authority over solar installations.
LAY OF THE LAND
To fully understand the decades of conflict on Braley Road, one must first understand the zoning landscape of Freetown.
Just 20 percent of the town is zoned for industrial use, and half of that area is located on Braley Road, surrounding the homes of roughly 61 Cape Verdeans.
If you look at a zoning map of the town, Braley Road is easily spotted. There, the brilliant turquoise shade representing industrial space creates a square doughnut surrounding a one-mile long yellow patch that represents the residential area.
Driving down Braley Road, the meaning of the map is brought to life. On either side, the rural residential area of modest ranch houses is surrounded by auto junk yards, steel manufacturers, propane-filling companies and trucking depots.
The narrow, winding road runs parallel to Route 140. There are no sidewalks, and it would be a quiet street, save for the 16-wheelers that frequently rumble through.
Most of the Cape Verdean families on Braley Road have been in the area for more than a century, working as fishermen, shipbuilders and farmers.
The Calvary Pentecostal Church was founded 60 years ago. It has served as a focal point for the residents of Braley Road, who recently renovated the church building, installing a sound system for movie nights and a kitchen to cook meals for seniors.
No one bothered the community on Braley Road, Dias said, until the 1970s, when the junk yards started popping up.
That was before Freetown had zoning bylaws. Anyone who owned a plot of land could put a junk yard out front and no one would bother about it.
No one, that is, except Rev. Dias and the Cape Verdean community, who were determined to keep the area residential.
In 1980 they unsuccessfully fought the state, which wanted to put a barn for snowplows and sanding trucks on the road. The salt seeped into neighborhood wells, making the water undrinkable and damaging many pipes that the town was then forced to replace.
“The businesses came here, to the poorest communities, to buy the cheapest land to put the dirtiest businesses, to make the most profit,” Dias said.
By 1995, when the town wrote its zoning restrictions, it was third-to-last in the commonwealth to do so. The zones mirrored the pre-existing uses of the town, including the industrial-residential patchwork along Braley Road.
Dias said his community “thought we were safe” from further industrialization when the bylaws were written.
That wasn’t quite the case.
In 2000, they fought off an asphalt plant, a concrete plant and an 800,000-square-foot warehouse for TJX Cos.
“We just felt like they were still trying to push us out,” Dias said. “It brings down the quality of life, the property values, and before you know it, there will be no community, no church, no culture.”
To Dias, the two solar farms zoned for the Cape Verdeans’ small residential area, are just the latest encroachment.
“There is a compounding affect,” he said.
The problem Dias has with the solar farms is not just that they will be big (one will be 70 acres, the other will be 16.6 acres), or that they will be the second and third solar farms on Braley Road.
To make room for the panels, 34 acres of trees will have to be clear-cut in areas where Dias said he often sees wildlife.
The smaller solar farm is also located right next to the state’s plow barn, and clear-cutting the trees will give the solar plant’s neighbors an unobstructed view of the plows and salt mounds located there.
“There’s no buffer,” Dias said.
One abutter who did not give her name because she was afraid of discrimination said she felt that Braley Road was picked on and that cutting down trees to put in green energy seemed counterproductive.
Dias led a group of abutters against the solar farms at Planning Board hearings, but the farms were approved anyway.
That’s thanks to a bylaw approved by Town Meeting in June 2010 that streamlines the permitting process by including something called as-of-right siting.
As-of-right siting effectively took away the discretionary control of the town’s Planning Board over solar projects. The board can review a project’s site plan to ensure it follows bylaws regarding setbacks and vegetation, but it can’t reject a project or tell it to move.
So when the two solar farms came before the Freetown Planning Board, there wasn’t much Chairman Bob Raymond could do.
“We had people come in saying they didn’t like the location, but the owners said that was where they wanted it to be,” Raymond said. “That’s not something our Planning Board is in a position to require them to do because of as-of-right siting.”
Freetown’s as-of-right siting bylaw requires projects to be set back 50 feet from the street and requires vegetation to be planted to obstruct the street view of the solar farms.
“But we can’t tell them, you know, that’s too big, reduce it by 30 percent,” Raymond said.
The town decided to adopt as-of-right siting at a time when it was considering applying for a Green Communities designation, a state program that gives grants to municipalities that have renewable-energy friendly bylaws.
Raymond said the bylaw adopted by town meeting was based on a draft bylaw provided by the state, but there’s one key difference. The state’s versions from 2009 and 2010 instruct municipalities to create a “designated zone” where as-of-right siting would apply. The state’s recommendation calls a designated zone “an integral part of the process of adapting an as-of-right solar bylaw.”
Meg Lusardi, director of the state’s Green Communities Division, said the designated zone provision of the bylaw was created because “it’s important for a municipality to be mindful about what’s appropriate for its community.”
Without a designated zone, Freetown’s bylaw makes it virtually impossible for the Planning Board to reject any solar projects, no matter where they will be located.
Raymond said town members weren’t aware that they were allowed to create a designated location when they wrote the law.
“It wasn’t clear that was an option at the time,” he said.
Given the controversy that has erupted over the Braley Road solar projects, he said, they should have considered it.
But, he said, “It’s a double-edged sword.”
“There are people who own large parcels of land zoned residential,” he said. “The only options they have are to sit on the land and pay taxes or build a subdivision.”
That was the choice facing Peter Hawes, whose family owns both parcels of land on Braley Road land where solar farms will be going in.
“It makes financial sense,” he said of the land that’s been in his family for 100 years. “It’s a way to derive some income so we can continue to pay the town taxes.”
Hawes said he believes the solar panels are “a pretty good use” for the land compared to the other businesses on the street.
“There’s no noise from solar, they don’t smell, you don’t see them much and they don’t pollute,” he said. “I think our use is much better than a tire dump.”
So, he said, he was surprised when Braley Road residents started showing up at Planning Board meetings to try to derail his project.
“I can understand the position that they want less trucking and manufacturing, but that’s not what this is,” he said. “The town boards determined it’s OK for us to do solar here, so that has to count for something.”
The undesirable locations for the two solar farms’ add insult to injury for Dias, he said, because he has the perfect Braley Road alternative.
Just down the street from one of the proposed solar farms is a now-defunct tire dump.
To get there, you have to walk through the woods behind an auto junk yard.
On your way there, the ground starts to feel bouncy from rubber scraps buried under topsoil.
After about a quarter mile, you arrive at a large clearing with thousands of tires.
There are car tires and truck tires, scraps of tires and full tires stacked at least six feet high, in winding mounds that speckle the clearing.
The tire dump never had a permit for solid waste disposal, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. So four years ago, the DEP worked with Dias to remove three-fourths of the tires there, at no cost to the owner. Still, a DEP spokesman estimated that there are still “many thousands” of tires left.
“The issue is really an absentee owner,” the spokesman said.
To Dias, this tire dump represents the perfect opportunity for a solar farm because it’s already cleared of trees. Dias is also worried that the languishing tires currently serve as a breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes, something a solar farm would not do.
“I don’t know why you would cut down trees for a solar farm when you could get rid of a tire dump that’s just down the street,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you instead replace this filth here?”
Paul Donlan, who is listed as a trustee with partial ownership of the land, said he came to own the area after the tire dump was established. His is the only name on assessors’ records, and, while he said there are other trustees for the property, he did not name them.
Reached last week by The Standard-Times, he said he hadn’t known that he was still the land’s trustee.
Donlan, who said he has not visited the property in two years, said he was confused by Dias’ issues with the tire dump because, to his recollection, “It’s just open, clear land.”
“The tires were pretty much cleaned up a few years ago,” he said.
Donlan said the cleanup had begun when his group was thinking about installing satellite towers on the land. When that deal fell through, the tire cleanup stopped and the land remained unattended.
Asked about solar, Donlan said he had not thought of it as a use for the land but that “it actually makes all the sense in the world.”
“I think it’s a smart idea to just take the area with the tires on it,” he said.
He said he would try to get in touch with Dias about the issue.
Still, potentially putting solar farms on the tire dump land wouldn’t stop Hawes from putting the panels on his own property.
That “baffles” Dias, who said the two solar farms will only hurt the growth of his community.
“They call it a farm, but they don’t grow anything, they don’t harvest anything,” he said. “It will just be a fence with barbed wire. We’ll be in a prison.”
— Find this article at: http://www.southcoasttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20131110/NEWS/311100313