The Board of Aldermen may be ready to prefer a solar site.

Board of Aldermen President Sharon Davis said Thursday that the Community and Economic Development Committee had voted Wednesday to recommend the full board grant developer Joe Giancola a “preferred solar site” designation for a 199.8-kw solar array he plans to build on a River Street property.

The designation was created by the state to allow municipalities to encourage solar development on better-suited properties and discourage them on worse-suited ones. It has no bearing on the project’s approval, but does make it eligible for a higher rate on the net-metered electricity. Giancola said the rate is needed to make the project economically viable.

The board effectively denied the designation to a project planned last year by Charles Coughlin, who owns the local McDonald’s restaurants as well as Central Vermont Motorcycles. The board held extensive discussions in executive session before declining to act on Coughlin’s request, and no public explanation was given.

“Joe, currently, is at that same level, but I’m not sure it’s going to take the same direction,” Davis said.

The committee was short of a quorum after a last-minute change of day to avoid scheduling opposite a forum Thursday on the downtown strategic plan rewrite, so Davis stepped up in her capacity of an at-large member of each aldermanic committee.

“What we did was, Joe had all the paperwork, he had maps showing the sites,” Davis said. “Questions were asked ... in regards to the highest and best use of that property. … Could anything else be built on it? Joe’s answer was no.”

Previously, Davis said, the board asked the planning commission to look at definitions of preferred solar sites to include in the city’s master plan.

“That didn’t happen,” she said. “This discussion ensued about do we or do we not have more guidance.”

Davis said she made the motion to approve, but said that she does not think anything has changed since the Coughlin application.

“Mr. Coughlin’s site was the first discussion of a preferred site,” she said. “We really had no idea what it was. … I think I was a little frustrated last night. It’s been a little while. There should have been some discussion of what constitutes a preferred site.”

Giancola noted that the property is zoned industrial and that the preferred site designation was endorsed by the planning commission.

“It’s kind of confusing to them, I think,” he said. “I don’t know what the master plan had to do with it.”

Alderman Matt Whitcomb, a committee member who missed the meeting, said it was certainly confusing to him.

“Does it lock a particular parcel of land into a particular use forever?” he asked. “Every time I’ve asked that question, I’ve gotten a muddier answer. … I’ve done my best to do my homework, to read what the state of Vermont has put out. Even that isn’t 100 percent clear.”

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