Select Board hesitant to play hardball with solar developer

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A resident’s push for the town to take aggressive measures to prevent a solar development on forested land off Frankland Road was not well received by the Select Board at Tuesday night’s meeting.

Ann Karnofsky, chair of Save the Forest citizens group, spoke about the former Liberty Mutual property, where Seaboard Solar was granted a permit by the Planning Board to build a solar array.

Some abutters have sued to prevent the development, and Karnofsky encouraged the town to take advantage of the delay and stop the forest from being cleared.

“We are determined that they won’t be doing it, because if they intrude on the forest they’ll ruin it for everyone,” Karnofsky said. “We don’t want any solar in there.”

Karnofsky noted that the City of Newton recently acquired some forested land from Boston College by the process of eminent domain — which still requires the town pay for it.

“What I would like to suggest is that the town have the forest parcel appraised and then have town counsel think about taking that parcel by eminent domain, prescriptive easement or adverse possession for the welfare, health and safety of the town residents and for the benefit of the town’s master plan,” Karnofsky said.

Among those supporting Karnofsky’s idea was Bob Ionta, who lives on an abutting property on Frankland Road.

“The property there is one of the last vestiges of open land that we have in this side of Hopkinton that’s not host to a development,” said Ionta, a longtime resident.

“[The town] is in danger of becoming a few isolated islands of forest and lake surrounded by masses of development now,” Ionta added. “I’m afraid that destroying one more piece of forest — actually a pretty significant piece of forest — is really going to be decimation for this particular part of the town, this neighborhood on the east side. So I really hope that the town can find a way to acquire that land in spite of the fact that the developer that now owns it is really not very cooperative.”

Select Board members expressed concern with an aggressive approach, especially invoking eminent domain.

Brendan Tedstone noted that the town reached out to the owner of the property to discuss a potential sale, but “they were unwilling to even entertain an offer.”

Said Mary Jo LaFreniere: “People who own their own property don’t want other people telling them what they can do with it. As much as I feel we need rules and regulations and bylaws and that sort of thing, if these people don’t want to sell us their property, I don’t see really how we can make them do it.”

Muriel Kramer noted that the Planning Board worked with the developer to preserve many of the trails in the site, although she acknowledged it wouldn’t be the same after it’s developed.

“Taking property by eminent domain is a heavy lift, and for all the right reasons,” Kramer said. “It shouldn’t be easy for a town to sort of wrestle control of a property away from a property owner. That being said, I would support enthusiastic conversations and attempts and keeping the door open to the possibility of acquiring that property, but through more typical means.”

Concurred vice chair Amy Ritterbusch: “I don’t think it hurts to try again, but I’m not too hopeful about an eminent domain.”

Office building owner appeals town’s order

On a related note, the owner of the former Liberty Mutual building and parking lot — which Seaboard Solar separated from the forested parcel and sold for $4 million last year — is to appear before the Zoning Board of Appeals next Wednesday. The town’s zoning enforcement officer in May issued a cease and desist order to stop the owner — Feeney Brothers Utility Services, a Boston-based contractor — from using the grounds to store and repair construction equipment, as it is a professional office zoning district. The owner is appealing the decision.

The 15-acre property continues to be listed as available for rent. It consists of 93,628 square feet of office/industrial space and 100 parking spaces, according to an online listing.