A solar array at Brunswick’s Crystal Spring Farm that officially launched in 2018. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

About nine months after town officials approved Bowdoin College’s plan to build a 20-acre solar array at the former Navy base, the town council voted Thursday to tighten environmental impact rules for future developers.

In December 2020, Brunswick planning officials approved the college’s roughly 18,000-panel project, which stirred local controversy due to rare sandplain grasslands located in the plot.

There are just over 1,000 acres of sandplain grassland mapped through The Maine Natural Area’s Program in the state. According to the program, the grassland offers habitat to several rare ground nesting birds including the grasshopper sparrow, upland sandpiper and short-eared owl.

The Times Record reported that the college and the developer, Sol Systems, contended the techniques being used to mitigate impact on the grassland – such as an initial controlled burn and taller panels to accommodate less frequent mowing — were already comprehensive.

Some town officials and environmentalists, such as Councilor Steve Walker, disagreed. Walker then started a push to rework the town’s rules and implement clearer requirements for future developers.

The council unanimously approved amended rules which apply to any development, not just solar.

“We’re in a biodiversity crisis right now, and Maine hasn’t escaped that,” Walker said. “What this does is add predictability to the ordinance by clearly identifying when mitigation is necessary, what mitigation includes and then a handful of exemptions.”

The new rules require applicants looking to develop on rare natural habitats prove there are no other viable locations for the project. If that is proven, then the applicant must replace the habitat, or protect similar habitat, at the same ratio of impact.

“If you impact 20 acres, hey, you got to permanently conserve 20 acres of it somewhere else or enhance or restore an area that maybe has been burned, or has invasive species,” Walker added. “At the end of the day, it is supposed to result in less loss to these rare natural features.”

A map titled “High Value Plant & Animal Habitats Brunswick” by Beginning with Habitat, a program associated with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The map is non-regulatory and intended for planning purposes only. Areas shaded orange are designated as “known rare, threatened, or endangered species occurrence and/or the associated habitats based on species sightings.” Screenshot

Bowdoin College’s new solar array is under construction, and is expected to be operational by late November.

The array will offset 43% of the college’s indirect greenhouse gas emissions that are associated with the purchase of electricity, according to Bowdoin College Director of College and Media Relations Doug Cook.

“The general benefit of a solar power project like this is in combatting the effects of global warming,” Cook said in an email. “Bowdoin has long demonstrated its commitment to sustainability and in making choices that support that effort whenever possible.”

Cook added that the college has no issues with the amendment, and “is appreciative of the process and work done by the planning board on this.”

Angela Twitchell, the executive director of the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, said that in her experience, solar development and land conservation don’t have to work at cross-purposes so long as communities are thoughtful in planning.

An example of this, she said, was in Topsham, where developers are charged a fee based on the conservation value of the land on which they want to build.

The Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust conserves roughly 100-acres of sandplain grassland.

“We support renewable energy and seeking ways to have cleaner energy and mitigate climate change, and we also really support protecting our natural resources,” said Twitchell. “Just like residential development or commercial development isn’t well suited to be done anywhere, this is also true of solar farms and other renewable energies. It’s just a matter of the community carefully planning for where different uses should be.”

Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Steve Levesque said that the authority supports the amended rules, and that most of the sandplain grassland is near the airport, so “development potential is minimal at best.”

In 2011, the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority was charged with guiding the redevelopment and civilian use of the retired military base. The base, which is on it’s own grid, is 100% powered by renewable resources like an on-campus solar farm.

“We work with the state on when we mow so that we are not impacting the bird species that nest there,” Levesque said. “We do have a management plan for that area and we adhere to that, that’s a core philosophy of ours.”

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