The Ewing-Lawrence Sewerage Authority officials probably thought a good deal had fallen into their laps when a vendor approached them in 2015 about installing a cost-saving solar farm to power their facility in Lawrence Township.

But the project has set off a battle that has spanned multiple years and government boards, and has ramifications for residents in three Mercer County municipalities. The proposed solar farm has touched a nerve in particular with its neighbors in Hamilton’s Cornell Heights development and, counterintuitively, with environmentalists, who have said the project would worsen an already-bad flooding problem in the area. The developer is currently considering its next step—including taking the township to court.

The area around a proposed solar farm on Sweet Briar Avenue in Hamilton has long had the tendency to flood. This photo taken by the Army Corps of Engineers on April 16, 2007 shows the intersection of Sweet Briar Avenue and Whitehead Road.

At the center of the issue is 40 acres of heavily wooded land on Sweet Briar Avenue, technically located in Hamilton Township but adjacent to the ELSA plant in Lawrence. The vendor, Synnergy LLC, proposes to remove 820 large trees from 12 acres of the property to make room for a solar farm.

State law says solar farms must be on or adjacent to the facilities they serve, and Synnergy company officer Steve Durst said the land on Sweet Briar Avenue was the only candidate that fit the criteria. ELSA has room on its own property to fit only 10 percent of the panels needed to make the project viable.

“It’s really not an option,” Durst said.

He said the solar panels would save ELSA as much as $300,000 per year in the cost of electric power, savings that could potentially reach ratepayers in ELSA’s service area of Ewing and Lawrence townships. The solar farm would also reduce ELSA’s carbon emissions by 2,500 metric tons per year, Durst said.

Synnergy applied for New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection approval in 2015, receiving approvals three years later, on Feb. 7, 2018. With the go-ahead from DEP, Synnergy filed with Hamilton Township the last week of March 2018.

And that’s where the conflict started.

Residents in Cornell Heights and environmentalists from Delaware Riverkeeper Network immediately raised concerns, particularly with the plan to remove hundreds of large trees in an area that has suffered from flooding for years.

For backing, they pointed to a Hamilton Township ordinance that says the township can approve applications involving the removal of trees only if the removal would have a minor impact on the surrounding area.

“Clearly, it’s a major impact,” said Fred Stine, citizen action coordinator with Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “It will make flooding in that area worse.”

Tammy Duffy lives across the street from the proposed site on Sweet Briar Avenue, and she said she has witnessed two “100-year floods” in the area in the past 10 years. A 100-year flood is a flood that has a 1-percent chance of occurring in any given year, according to Federal Emergency Management Agency definitions.

“It’s scary when that happens,” Duffy said. “You work hard your whole life to buy a house. I’ve been here 18 years. I don’t want to see it get destroyed.”

Hurricane Irene in 2011 was particularly bad, with homes on three streets in Cornell Heights sustaining major damage from flooding, former Hamilton councilman Dennis Pone said. Pone has long been a vocal advocate for Cornell Heights, and even rode his activism on behalf of his neighborhood to a seat on the township council, where he served from 2006 until 2018.

Surrounded by Assunpink Creek and Miry Run, Cornell Heights has long co-existed with water. But Pone traces the origins of the flooding issue to the construction of The Crossings, a high-density housing development built on formerly forested land near the Hamilton train station. He said retention basins at Crossings—built for flood prevention—have failed repeatedly. Synnergy has offered to build similar basins around the solar farm to ease concerns, but residents have rejected the gesture, not believing the basins would work.

Pone said one neighbor has lived on Trinity Avenue for 50 years, and never had an issue before The Crossings were built. She now has water in her basement whenever it rains.

Synnergy argues the project would not cause flooding, but Pone said he can’t understand how that could be true. With Cornell Heights sandwiched between The Crossings and the proposed solar farm site, Pone worries how bad the flooding could get if hundreds of trees are removed on Sweet Briar Avenue. One large tree can drink 100 gallons of water per day, according to North Carolina State University’s Department of Horticultural Science.

“That’s what scares us most,” Pone said. “That’s the biggest help to a flood-prone area, large trees.”

Cornell Heights residents have packed Hamilton planning board meetings. They are the reason for the solar farm’s uncertain status.

Meanwhile, the federal government has watched the back-and-forth with interest, with both Rep. Chris Smith (R-Hamilton) and the United States Army Corps of Engineers having been involved for years with flood mitigation efforts in the area.

“[Smith] personally took FEMA officials through the Whitehead and Cornell Heights neighborhood after Hurricane Irene hit in 2011,” a statement from Smith’s office said. “He met with the neighbors and walked through their flooded homes. After helping to get federal aid for recovery, Congressman Smith later asked the Corps to look for a way to help reduce the flooding.”

USACE wound up including the Assunpink Creek into a larger project studying the Delaware River. That led to a $500,000 study, paid for by USACE and NJDEP, of how water flows through the area. The study started in late 2014, with the state recently completing its part. USACE plans to complete a list of suggestions this year, Smith’s office said.

USACE’s Terry Fowler, who manages the Assunpink project, said the study continues to focus on flooding issues and potential flood risk management measures related to the main stem Assunpink Creek and tributaries in Hamilton, Lawrence and Trenton.

“Like all other development in the floodplain, if the solar farm is constructed it will be part of the existing conditions that we take into consideration during our study,” Fowler wrote in an email.

Smith’s office struck a similarly balanced tone, saying Smith would “listen, gather information and see if there is any way” he could help everyone involved.

An everybody-wins solution seems unlikely now, though. Cornell Heights residents have packed several Hamilton planning board meetings and a township council meeting. Their efforts are directly responsible for the solar farm’s uncertain status.

A land use attorney hired by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network argued in late February that township zoning does not permit a solar farm off Sweetbriar Avenue, and said the project had to instead seek a variance from Hamilton’s zoning board. The planning and zoning attorneys considered the argument for several weeks in March, eventually agreeing that the application should be heard by the zoning board.

At its March 28 meeting, the township planning board took the attorneys’ recommendation, pushing the application to the zoning board. The process now essentially starts over, with the township planning office saying the developer would have to resubmit the application in order to get on the zoning board agenda.

The plan’s opponents celebrated the decision, particularly because they believe it will make approval less likely. The application would require a two-third majority in order to be approved by the zoning board. It only would have needed a simple majority from the planning board.

Synnergy and ELSA have been left to regroup. They have four options: resubmit the application to Hamilton’s zoning board and start from scratch, request the zoning board pick up where planning left off, pursue legal action or simply pull the project. Durst said he hopes everything is resolved properly and peacefully, adding that he doesn’t “ waste time in litigation” unless he’s certain law has been misapplied.

Durst met with the ELSA board April 16 to explain “the situation and how we got there.” The project, at the moment, is in a holding pattern.

“The status remains as it is,” Durst said April 16. “That’s probably going to be the case for at least a couple weeks more.”