The Board of Aldermen told a local businessman it would not declare his property a “preferred site” for solar development and wouldn’t tell him why.
The board took no action Monday on the request from Charles Coughlin that the city sign a letter saying his property met a particular set of state criteria for a solar site, but did vote to have the Planning Commission include preferred sites for solar development in the next update to the city’s master plan. Coughlin owns the local McDonald’s restaurants and Central Vermont Motorcycles on West Street, behind which he plans to build the solar array. He plans to use net metering to have the array cover power at his businesses.
Phil Allen and Marlene Allen, of Same Sun of Vermont, who are developing the project for Coughlin, said the preferred site designation is meant to encourage solar development in places such as industrial properties rather than agricultural land. They said it has no bearing on the approval process, but does affect how much Coughlin would be paid for energy produced at the site.
At an earlier meeting, several aldermen expressed concern about the designation having some other effect on the project or property, something the Allens denied it could under state utility regulation.
Mayor David Allaire and Board President Sharon Davis noted Monday that they were not explicitly voting against signing the letter, though Allen said it renders the project ineligible for an incentive that would save Coughlin roughly $50,000 over a period of several years.
“Nothing is going to change about this array except you folks deciding it’s worth a penny more, which saves a business some money,” Allen said. “By saying ‘no’ to that, how does that support local business? An industrial site next to a wastewater treatment plant isn’t a preferred site?”
The board’s reasoning remained opaque because it was the result of a committee-level discussion with City Attorney Matt Bloomer that took place in executive session, and none of the board members who were present were willing to shed any light on the question.
“It’s killing us that we have to do this, but we’re thinking of the city,” said Alderman William Gillam, who said everyone on the committee who made the recommendation supports economic development. “We have other issues we have to deal with.”
Alderwoman Rebecca Mattis said the board’s position didn’t seem to line up with its usual support for local businesses — including earlier discussions in that very meeting.
“I feel like people’s nerves around the wording ‘preferred site’ is being nervous about a snake that turns out to be a piece of string,” she said.
Davis said that the issues discussed in executive session could not be discussed publicly by the full board, but they were “thoroughly vetted.”