Bloomberg Solar Field to Double in Size — What Will this Mean to the Wood Turtles and Barred Owls?
By Barbara A. Preston
— The downside of solar energy is the amount of acreage it takes — especially in a high density state where local communities, such as Montgomery, are experiencing a development boom.
Preserving open space for people to enjoy via hiking and kayaking is nice, but it is even more paramount for endangered species, such as the barred owl and wood turtle.
The Montgomery Open Space Committee and Coordinator Lauren A. Wasilauski did not support Bloomberg’s recent request for a waiver of providing an Environmental Impact Statement. However, the Montgomery Planning Board granted it away, and unanimously voted this summer to approve an application to double the size of an existing solar-energy field at the Bloomberg's Princeton Campus at 100 Business Park Drive off Route 518 in Montgomery Township.
“While this office generally supports the use of renewable energy, it does not do so at the expense of threatened and endangered species habitat and disturbance to other crucial areas,” according to a memo from Wasilauski. “The applicant should not add solar panels in these sensitive areas.”
An NJ Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) landscape map for the property found the area at the rear of the property is habitat for several threatened species, including: wood turtles (Eastern Box Turtle); bobcats, and barred owls.
According to the DEP database, the last bobcat sighting in the area at the rear of Bloomberg was in 1995 — so those are likely gone for good. But DEP documented a Barred Owl sighting in 2014. This year, a local hiker found a wood turtle in the area, and heard the cry of Barred Owls.
Bloomberg already has an eight-acre field of solar panels surrounded by a chain-link fence, built in 2011. It is visible from Cherry Brook Preserve. A Montgomery Pathways trail exists along the length of the solar field.
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The planning board gave Bloomberg permission to construct a second array of eight-foot-high ground-mounted photovoltaic solar panels on a 7.7-acre field. The project will be adjacent to the first, with a Montgomery pathway between the two. This will amount to nearly a 16-acre solar energy farm that will fuel two office buildings on the Bloomberg campus.
“Due to the presence of threatened and endangered species, the applicant (Bloomberg) should provide evidence from the NJDEP that the proposed project has been reviewed by the Division of Fish and Wildlife,” according to Wasilauski.
The solar field crosses wetlands and streams, and the project includes installation of underground cables and utility poles to be installed in a stream corridor.
Bloomberg’s Landscape Architect, Richard W. Loeffler III of Doylestown, Penn, says the site is currently a “wide open field with no trees” and “weedy.” It was previously farmland cultivated by Drake Farm.
Variances were needed to put utility poles in a stream corridor and a height-variance for the fence around the solar field, which would be eight feet high in an area that currently calls for four-foot fences.
Bloomberg also sought waivers from having to do an environmental impact statement, reasoning that they did one in 2010 for Part One of the solar field project. They also sought a waiver from doing a study of threatened and endangered species in the area.
Planning board member Sarah Roberts suggested, “Maybe we should have a staff member check with the DEP that your interpretation that they don’t want you to do anything for the wood turtles is correct?”
Loeffler replied: “We explicitly stated to the DEP that we were seeking a waiver (from the study). I received, from the lead at the DEP, that our application is complete. When the permit for flood hazards and for wetlands are granted, I believe that will be confirmed.”
The planning board asked Rakesh Darji, the board engineer, to confirm that the DEP does not require the studies.
Could solar panels be placed on the roof or over the parking lots rather than on the ground? Bloomberg said this would not enhance the look of the building, and there might not have been enough roof space. ■