BERLIN — Plans for an organic commercial greenhouse operation growing tomatoes and lettuce for markets throughout New England received site plan approval Tuesday night.
After a lengthy and detailed presentation, the planning board voted unanimously to approve the site plan, conditioned on North Country Growers LLC finalizing the purchase of the property and receiving all necessary state and federal permits.
A subsidiary of American Ag Energy, North Country Growers is in the process of purchasing 172 acres off the East Milan Road from the city for $680,000. The company has an option on the property and hopes to finalize the sale soon.
The two greenhouses will produce an estimated 15 million heads of lettuce and 8 million pounds of tomatoes annually. The operation expects to employ about 80 people with entry-level jobs starting at an annual salary of about $30,000 plus benefits according to CFO Marguerite Piret.
Piret said the firm has lined up financing and hopes to finalize both the financing and permitting to allow construction to get underway this spring and begin operating early next year.
Representing NCG, HEB Engineers President Jay Poulin first outlined the subdivision of the 213-acre parcel owned by the city. The city will retain ownership of two parcels totaling just over 40 acres and containing the former East Milan landfill and an abandoned landfill. The subdivision was approved with the condition it will take effect when the sale to NCG is finalized.
NCG will build its greenhouse operation on the southern end of its parcel. There will be two greenhouses — a 9.5-acre greenhouse for tomatoes and a 10.3-acre one for lettuce.
Piet said produce will be delivered to stores and restaurants within 24 hours of picking. She said NCG will serve an area within an eight hour drive of Berlin. She stressed there will be no retail operation on-site.
The produce will be grown hydroponically using rain water collected from the flat roofs of the greenhouses and stored in irrigation ponds. Poulin said the roofs will be heated in the winter to melt the snow to provide water. Instead of pesticides, the greenhouses will use predator insects to control bugs and problem insects and will have an entomologist on staff. Workers will shower and change into uniforms before going into the greenhouses.
One of the attractions of the Berlin location was access to the natural gas pipeline. The greenhouses will rely on two gas engines for heat and power with the carbon dioxide produced used to enhance plant growth.
While the Berlin facility would be the first for American Ag Energy, Piet said the technology has been used in Europe for 15 to 20 years now. She said company CEO Richard Rosen is currently in Belgium doing research on greenhouse operations.
“None of this is new technology,” she said.
Poulin said the greenhouses will be metal structures 19 feet high with glass skin on both the walls and roof.
Special black-out screens will be installed to block out the sun to keep the greenhouses cool in the summer and warmer in the winter. In response to a question from planning board Chair Tom McCue about light from the facility at night, NGS Environment and Safety Manager Sam Gaeth said the screens will block most of the light and used a video to show the effect.
A new access is proposed off the East Milan Road that will be gated. The entire property will be fenced and there will be security at all times. A landscape architect has developed a landscape plan for the property that includes an enhanced buffer along residential properties.
Abutter Gary Ferron said he believes the greenhouses will negatively impact the value of his property. He also said he works nights and expressed concern that during construction the noise will make it hard for him to sleep during the day.
Poulin said the project meets all setback requirements and is in an industrial zone.
Representing his son, Peter Nolet said the East Milan Road and Chalet Loop area is rural and the project will mean people there “are basically living in an industrial park.”
Community Development Director Pamela Laflamme said the city has received calls from other abutters in support of the project.
City Code Enforcement Officer Michel Salek asked NCG if they will recycle their dead tomato plants. Gaeth responded that the plants will be composted.
Planning board member City Councilor Lucie Remillard said she would like to see the produce available in Berlin’s one local grocery store. She also asked NCG to try and work something out to satisfy the concerns of abutters.
Piet responded that she will have the landscape architect look at ways to reduce impacts.
The planning board approval also specified that NCG must notify the city if it decides to grow crops other than vegetables there. Poulin assured the board that despite the rumors, NCG does not plan to grow marijuana at the facility.