Select Board race in Somerset has offshore wind ramifications
Outcome could affect dealings with Brayton Point redeveloper
A BATTLE FOR A SEAT on the Somerset Select Board is shaping up as a referendum on the board’s oversight of Brayton Point, which many in town hope will become the epicenter of the state’s emerging offshore wind industry.
The race in the South Coast community centers around many typical Select Board issues. Are taxes too high? Is economic growth deteriorating or on the rebound? What’s going on with staff turnover in town hall?
But there is also growing concern about one of the major economic prizes of offshore wind – a $300 million factory that would produce subsea cable to deliver electricity from offshore wind farms to shore. The Italian company seeking to build the factory wants to locate it at Brayton Point, the former site of a now-shuttered coal-fired power plant. But the deal hasn’t been completed yet, in part because of infighting between Somerset officials and the redeveloper of the property, who have a long history of bad blood.
As voters head to the polls on Monday, the outcome of the election may affect how the situation at Brayton Point is handled and could have ramifications for the state’s bid to turn what was once the site of a carbon-spewing coal plant into a Massachusetts home for the offshore wind industry.
But a near two-year delay in the permitting of offshore wind farms by the Trump administration left Commercial Development with a vast swath of land and no revenues coming in. The company dealt with the setback by leasing a portion of its empty property to a scrap metal exporter and a road salt distributor – noisy, dirty businesses that polarized the community and led to an all-out political and legal war.
Over several years, town residents who felt Somerset officials were unresponsive to their concerns about the noise and dust emanating from Brayton Point swept all of the Select Board members out of office and replaced them with people who opposed the company’s interim businesses.
Slowly, the situation at Brayton Point changed. Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump and put offshore wind on a fast track. The Prysmian Group, headquartered in Italy, announced in February 2022 its intention to build a subsea cable manufacturing facility at Brayton Point to serve the offshore wind industry. In March 2022, a long-running legal struggle between the town and Commercial Development came to an end when a Land Court judge ordered the scrap metal business to shut down. Biden himself came to Brayton Point last July and called the property “the frontier of clean energy in America.”
The political winds in Somerset have also shifted a bit. Kathy Souza, who in 2021 rode her opposition to the scrap metal business into a vacant seat on the Select Board, lost her bid for a full term in 2022. The winner, Jacob Vaught, steered clear of the Brayton Point issue during the campaign but won support from a segment of voters who felt the opponents of the scrap metal business were vengeful and ill-equipped to manage the town.
Patricia Haddad, the state representative from Somerset, said at the time the town was divided between those who opposed the scrap metal business and those who didn’t. “It has nothing to do with people’s abilities. It’s about whose side you are on,” she said at the time.
Now Lorne Lawless, who won a squeaker of an election to the Select Board in 2020 with strong support from the opponents of the scrap metal operation, is facing two challengers — a real estate executive named Jamison Souza (not related to Kathy Souza) and a retired doctor named Paul Healey.
Most town residents are eager for Prysmian to get started, which could give a lift to the town’s tax base. Healey feels similarly, but he has raised concerns about contaminants that could surface as Prysmian excavates soil and dredges the nearby water. He said he is the best candidate to deal with those environmental challenges.
In a subsequent Facebook post, Healey was more emphatic that his candidacy is not designed to help Souza. “I do not support Jamison Souza! I am not running to the benefit of Jamison,” he said. “There is no plan to split the vote to his benefit. I do not want Jamison in office. I do not think that Jamison is qualified for Selectman!”
On the surface, Souza and Lawless sound a lot alike. Both condemn the scrap metal fiasco, both welcome Prysmian, and both want to see offshore wind and Brayton Point take off.
But the two candidates nevertheless come from different camps in town. Lawless, who had been a member of the Select Board from 2007 to 2010, ran again in 2020 in part because he was alarmed at the harm the scrap metal business was causing.
Souza, no stranger to city government, having served on the School Committee and the Planning Board, was not active in the scrap metal fight, and says he wants to put the bitterness that emerged in the town’s rearview mirror. “We need to now put that behind us,” he said.
Souza wants to focus on promoting development and boosting the tax base. In that vein, he is worried that an ongoing dispute between the town and Commercial Development is slowing or could prevent development at Brayton Point.
The dispute is about nearly $3.5 million in fines that Commercial Development incurred when it allowed the scrap metal business to continue operating despite a cease-and-desist order from the Zoning Board of Appeals.
Brayton Point LLC needs some town permits to pave the way for the sale of 47 acres to Prysmian, but town bylaws say no permits can be issued to a business with fines outstanding. A Brayton Point LLC attorney told the town in January that the permit dispute threatened the Prysmian deal; he offered to pay $15,000 to make the fines disappear.
Haddad, Somerset’s state rep, said the fines are a big topic of conversation in town. She said no one is happy with Commercial Development and there is a lot of debate about the best way to get the the Prysmian project moving forward.
Souza said the stalemate that has ensued is bad for the town because he believes offshore wind development at Brayton Point could take off if the Prysmian deal goes through. “It’s a ‘Field of Dreams’ moment, build it and they will come,” he said.
At the same time, however, he said he is not willing to simply write off the fines. He proposes that Commercial Development pay the fines but the money be set aside in escrow, which would permit the land sale to Prysmian to go through while allowing negotiations over the fines to continue. He said he thinks Commercial Development may go along with that approach because the land sale would bring in roughly $50 million.
“If I feel the entire amount of fines is valid, I would fight for that and then some. I would be looking for interest on that,” Souza said. “No way I’m forgetting the fines. I will fight for the town.”
Lawless also wants Prysmian to move forward, but he feels Commercial Development should not be given any special treatment. “We have to live by the bylaws,” he said at the debate. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a big company or a small company.”
Lawless indicated the fines are a matter of principle for him. “I’m not going to throw the fines out the window,” he said in an interview.Does he think Souza will throw them out if he’s elected? “Yes, that’s what I think,” he said.
Voters have a tough choice on Monday deciding which course of action with Commercial Development is the best way to move the Prysmian project forward and get the state’s fledgling offshore wind industry on track.