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Freehold Township planners deny use variance for solar energy facility

FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP — The members of the Freehold Township Planning Board have voted 6-2 to deny an applicant’s request for a use variance that would have permitted the construction of a solar energy facility at 56 Willow Brook Road.

The application filed by Willow Brook Solar was heard during the board’s Sept. 15 meeting by Chairman Jason Levy and board members Robert Shortmeyer, John Bazzurro, Leon Bruno Jr., Apryl Kurtz, Christopher Marion, John Krok and Matthew Barbieri.

In addition to requesting the use variance, Willow Brook Solar was seeking preliminary and final major site plan approval for its proposed solar energy project.

According to an executive summary of the application that was prepared by Township Engineer Timothy White, Willow Brook Solar was “proposing to install a 3.74 MW dc solar array consisting of 9,720 solar panels over approximately 9.4 acres of the existing 35-acre farm at 56 Willow Brook Road. …

“The proposed facility is considered a dual use solar project as the site will continue to serve as a farm while operating as a solar facility. In 2021, the state enacted the Dual Use Solar Act which calls for 200 MWs of solar projects to be located on unpreserved farmland that will maintain an agricultural use.

“The (proposed) project is slated to participate in the dual use program where the facility will supply local customers with access to clean energy and electricity bill savings through community solar while simultaneously continuing the support of local food supply by continuing the farmland agricultural operations.

“The subject parcel is in the R-40 (residential) zone. A use variance is required as the proposed solar facility is not a permitted use in the R-40 zone,” White wrote.

Willow Brook Solar was represented at the meeting by attorney Steven G. Mlenak, who called on engineer Mark Janiszewski and planner Daniel Bloch to discuss the application.

The three-hour hearing on the application included two hours of public comment from residents who live in the vicinity of the proposed solar energy facility. When it was their turn to speak, the residents stated their concerns about noise, visual impact and the potential negative impact of the project on their property values.

A report from Kate Keller, the board’s planner, indicated that a solar energy facility is considered to be an inherently beneficial use.

During his testimony, Janiszewski described the Willow Brook Road site and said the applicant was proposing “significant buffering to the west and south,” to consist of hundreds of trees and shrubs to be planted.

Neighboring homes are to the west and south of the farm.

At certain times of the day, as the solar panels tracked the sun, the maximum height of the panels would be 14 feet, he said. A black coated chain link fence was proposed to surround the solar energy facility.

Janiszewski said the project had received approvals from the Monmouth County Planning Board and the Freehold Soil Conservation District. Equipment identified as inverters would produce sound during the day, but not at night, he said, adding that the facility would comply with the state’s noise statute.

During a discussion among board members, the applicant’s professionals and Keller, it was stated that between 20 and 25 homes could be built on the property without the need for a use variance because the current zoning is residential.

Several residents who addressed the board later in the meeting said they would prefer homes bordering their neighborhood instead of a solar energy facility.

Testimony presented by the applicant’s professionals indicated the lifespan for the solar energy facility would be about 20 years, at which time the solar panels would be removed. Farming activities would continue under and in between the solar panels during the years the facility was operating.

During his testimony, Bloch explained why, in his opinion as a planner, the use variance could be granted.

Bloch said the Municipal Land Use Law classifies solar energy as an inherently beneficial use; the facility would provide energy to approximately 500 homes; the project would reduce dependence on fossil fuels, which would advance the state’s goal to reduce dependence on fossil fuels; the project would protect existing farmland (i.e., the growing of crops); no night lighting was proposed; and there would be no impact to the permitted agricultural use.

The meeting was opened to public comment at 8:20 p.m. and residents spent the next two hours trying to convince the board members not to approve the applicant’s request for the use variance.

Some residents asked that alleged, but undefined, negative health impacts of living near a solar energy facility be considered; others asked what the impact on wildlife would be; some who spoke said they did not object to solar energy, but questioned the placement of such a facility in the vicinity of homes; and several people asked what would happen if a fire broke out at the solar energy facility.

Resident Victor Zuczek asked, “Is this board willing to set a precedent by allowing a solar facility in a residential zone?”

Resident Rocco Gagliardi asked what type of risks might be associated with a project such as the one that was before the board.

White, the board’s engineer, said he could not identify any risks. He said the potential for a fire at the site would be the same as the potential for a fire at a house.

Mlenak, the applicant’s attorney, said there is no inherent risk from the type of project Willow Brook Solar was proposing. It was noted the applicant was planning to lease the area where the panels were proposed to be constructed from the property owner.

After public comment was closed at 10:20 p.m., Mlenak offered his summation to the board and asked for an approval.

“The state has decided (solar energy) is an inherently beneficial use. Nothing has been introduced in the record which states that property values are going to be affected. The noise will be less than half of what is permitted. Our respectful request is that you vote to approve this application,” Mlenak said.

Following the attorney’s summation, Bazzurro said he has served on the board for 17 years and explained that “our job is to look at the law and to make a decision based on the testimony.”

Bazzurro said he reviewed the 2021 Dual Use Solar Act with an eye on the legislative intent of the law. He said he had concerns about various aspects of what the law described as a pilot program.

Specifically, Bazzurro said he was concerned the pilot program was expected to run for five years, while the applicant’s professionals testified the solar panels, once constructed, would likely have a 20-year lifespan.

“The state is telling us they want to jam this down our throat,” he said, while questioning the state’s commitment to the program.

The residents in the packed meeting room in the municipal building sat silently as they waited to see what would happen next. Bazzurro made a motion to deny the Willow Brook Solar application and his motion was seconded.

On a roll call vote, Bazzurro, Bruno, Kurtz, Shortmeyer, Marion and Krok voted “yes” to deny the application, while Levy and Barbieri voted “no.”

When the residents were informed the majority of “yes” votes meant the application had been denied, they broke out in applause as the meeting that ran for more than three hours concluded.

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