Restrict solar projects? One Vt. town may do it
By Brent Curtis
staff writer | November 24,2013
An attempt in Rutland Town to amend the town plan to regulate solar projects may represent the first time in Vermont that a municipality has sought to impose limitations on solar energy development.
Officials with the state Department of Public Service and the director of a renewable-energy advocacy group said concerns about solar projects have been raised by adjoining property owners in the past. But they said a potential planning challenge to a solar farm proposed in Rutland Town could be the first time that town officials have sought to regulate such a project.
“I think it’s unique in that regard,” said Gabrielle Stebbins, executive director of the nonprofit group Renewable Energy Vermont in Montpelier.
Solar projects in central Vermont have been welcomed with open arms. Williamstown, for example, is home to an installation of 9,000 solar panels on 16 acres, costing $10 million — similar in scope to the proposed solar farm in Rutland Town.
Jacqueline Higgins, town manager in Williamstown, said no concerns were raised by the town or by neighbors living next to the installation bordering Interstate 89.
“We didn’t have any concerns at all. It was no problem,” Higgins said. “It looks good, it’s landscaped. No one has an issue with it.”
But Rutland Town’s opponents say that as more large-scale solar installations emerge to meet Vermont’s renewable-energy quotas by 2050, attempts to exercise control over their placement will become more common.
Kathy Aicher, spokeswoman for the newly formed Vermonters for Responsible Solar — founded by three neighbors of the solar project proposed for Cold River Road in Rutland Town — said the work being done to institute solar standards in Rutland Town will appeal to other communities in the future.
“I think towns want to represent the interests of residents,” she said, “and right now there’s no easy way for neighbors to have their interests heard.”
Under Vermont statute, energy projects like groSolar’s 2.3 megawatt proposal in Rutland Town must receive a certificate of public good from the state Public Service Board.
But Geoff Commons, director of public advocacy at DPS, said groSolar is asking to be reviewed under a provision of the law that would allow it to expedite the process and move forward without a formal hearing in front of the Public Service Board. The law says the project must be of “limited size and scope” and not raise “significant” issues under the statute’s criteria, and satisfy the public’s interest.
Aicher and officials working to amend the Rutland Town plan are hoping the PSB won’t make any decisions until after the town decides on the proposed changes to the town plan.
The most substantive part of the changes drafted by the town’s Planning Commission and set to be reviewed by the Select Board deal with setbacks from roads.
Presently, groSolar would be required to provide 60-foot setbacks on the property which sits in an elbow of Cold River Road and is bordered by it on two sides.
Under the proposed changes, dubbed the “solar renewable energy siting standards,” the setback would be increased to 200 feet for any ground-mounted solar energy facility generating more than 1.5 kilowatts of electricity.
On the 24-acre field where groSolar’s project would be located, those setbacks along with existing wetland buffers would greatly reduce the space for the installation.
“The hope is that the property setbacks would be in effect for this project and that they may prompt the developers to look up the road for a new area for their project,” said Aicher, whose group has challenged the project primarily on aesthetic grounds.
During an informational meeting on the proposed project this month, David Fucci, whose home overlooks the proposed site, said the proposed fencing, trees and shrubs intended to shield the project from view would not obscure it from his sight.
“This is a bowl site,” Fucci said, referring to the topography. “Other properties are looking down on it and you can’t put a screen up high enough to not see those panels.”
Commons of the DPS said aesthetic concerns are the most common concern raised during reviews of solar facilities. The Public Service Board has often taken steps to mitigate visual concerns by requiring developers to fence off their installations or take other steps, he said.
But he said he could not recall the board ever denying a certificate of public good to a solar project.
Whether that would still be the case if Rutland Town changes its town plan is unclear, but one thing will remain certain: the board has ultimate say over whether a project gains approval and whether any limitations will apply to it.
“The decision is ultimately with the board,” Commons said.
That doesn’t mean the standards being worked out by the town are pointless, however.
Under the criteria reviewed by the PSB is a requirement that regulators give “due consideration” to the recommendations of the regional and municipal planning commissions.
What that means in practical terms is unclear, Commons said, although he said a town’s standards wouldn’t be ignored by the board.
“They certainly would consider it,” he said.
While Rutland Town’s efforts don’t signify a death knell for the proposed solar arrays, the initiative is nonetheless troubling to Stebbins of Renewable Energy Vermont, who said such attitudes could sabotage the state’s efforts to become energy-independent by the middle of the century.
“It’s deeply concerning,” she said. “I don’t know anyone who thinks a gas station is pretty but we use them every day. ... We really do have to be careful moving forward. We can’t say ‘Well, this is a safe, reliable, clean source of energy but we don’t like what it looks like so we’re going to zone it out.”