photo by Chris Howard
3 years ago, we purchased a home in Central Massachusetts. Since we don't live there full time, I knew I wanted to establish myself as part of the community and am on the board of a local organization, used local tradespeople for our construction, and joined a local social group.
It's a small, rural town, not far from the Quabbin reservoir and still has its primary focus as an agricultural community.
Being a 'come-here' rather than a 'born-here', I work hard to be sensitive to local concerns and adapt myself to the community, rather than the reverse. It has surprised me how easy it has been to feel comfortable and at home in a rural setting, given that I spent a lot of my formative years as a NYC girl.
All of this is a preamble for a meeting I was called to attend at the town planning board.
We are planning to install a ground-mounted solar array of 24 panels which will pretty much take care of all of our electrical needs there. In order to get the required town permissions, I had to speak to the planning board who had to grant several waivers from the way the solar regulations had been written. (They were created for large commercial solar farms, not meant to apply for household use.)
As part of that process, a public notice was sent inviting any interested parties to also attend and speak about the project.
One of our neighbors came to the meeting. When I say neighbor, I mean someone who lives within a half mile, but who does not abut our land, nor can either of us see each other's houses. StarField Farm is located almost 2000 feet from the main road and tucked in around 54 acres of land.
After I said my brief statement (it's a residential solar installation, it cannot be seen from the road or anyone's home, it would pose no environmental harm), my neighbor was invited to speak.
He was an older man. White. Definitely a long term smoker. His face was deeply lined and it was clear he'd lived a hard life.
He started by complaining that he was tired of seeing solar panels when he couldn't get his electricity from them. It wasn't fair. There were too many of them everywhere. And if he couldn't have them, they shouldn't be installed all over.
Somewhere in his long statement, he mentioned that he was widowed. He sounded lonely. And he was adament that he didn't want to see any solar panels as he was driving around his neighborhood. It was bad enough that one of his close neighbors put in a residential array where he could see it as he drove by. He had wanted to object to that installation, too, but got to the planning meeting where it was discussed too late.
Through all of this, he wouldn't make eye contact with me.
I tried to explain that because I didn't live here full time, we needed to keep the back up electric baseboard heaters at 50 degrees to keep the pipes freezing and in the winter that led to electric bills over $400/month.
He grudgingly admitted that that was a problem and that someone he knew had pipes burst in a cold snap when they didn't keep the heat on. But he was still objecting to the project. He said he'd driven around to our house and knew that he would see the panels from the road.
The house he thought was ours belongs to our nearest neighbors. Our driveway is accessed over 1000 feet down a shared access road and then the house is set back even further. It's actually not possible to see our home from the road and most folks don't even realize there is a home back there.
As he was talking, I realized that his objection had no standing with the planning board. Outside of a glare complaint or an environmental impact claim, there was nothing in the town laws against a homeowner putting up solar panels. I could have blown him off. The board would grant the waivers we needed: this was pretty much a pro-forma meeting.
But I also realized that this man needed to be heard, not argued with.
So I pulled out a site plan that showed where our home was in relation to the neighbor's home he had mistaken for ours. I understood his frustration and I assured him that the only way he'd see our panels was if he visited them and that he was certainly welcome to come by any time. (People who know me know that I am earnest. This was a genuine invitation, not anything sarcastic or mocking.)
He looked at me, finally, and when the planning board president asked him if his objection still stood, he said no.
The waivers were unanimously granted.
I thanked the man for coming to the meeting.
I have been in that place of vulnerability. I understand trying to hold onto something -- anything you think you can control. Even if it's not true or even helpful.