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New Haven aims to amend town plan to regulate solar projects

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Posted on December 18, 2014 |
By Zach Despart



NEW HAVEN — Seated around circular cafeteria tables in the frigid basement of Beeman Elementary School, the New Haven Planning Commission on Monday evening debated changing the town plan to assert more local control over how energy projects, particularly solar arrays, are sited within the town.

The Public Service Board, the sole state entity that approves utility projects, this year has approved six solar projects in New Haven larger than 15 kilowatts. Many more are awaiting board approval or will soon be filed with the PSB. Some New Haven residents say the board has not taken into account local concerns about siting, prompting the selectboard and planning commission to use the town plan to get some say in the town’s solar future.

The Public Service Board is not bound to follow town plans or local zoning rules. While the board welcomes municipalities as “intervenors” in the section 248 process, it retains the sole authority to approve or reject utility projects.

Nevertheless, towns like New Haven hope that by including clear guidelines in their town plans, the Public Service Board will be more likely to take their concerns into consideration.

The New Haven Town Plan, approved by voters in 2011, suggests that utility projects should not be larger than 300 kilowatts, but does not specifically address solar arrays. The new draft includes an entire section about solar projects and sets specific limits on the size of projects, setbacks from roads and neighbors, screening and other criteria. It is partly based on solar standards Rutland Town adopted into its municipal plan earlier this year.

Ideas the commission discussed Monday included:

•  Prohibiting arrays larger than 10 acres, which is about 1.2 MW to 1.5 MW.

•  Requiring projects larger than 100 kilowatts to maintain a decommissioning fund.

•  Prohibiting arrays between 150 kW and 1.5 MW from being sited within one mile of each other, and within 1,000 feet of other structures.

•  Requiring projects to have extensive screening, such as hedges or a fence, from both roadways and neighbors.

•  Protecting prime agricultural soil from commercial development.

•  Creating a “solar park” where many 150-kilowatt projects by different firms could be sited on one plot, minimizing disturbance to neighbors.

•  Mandating that projects not disturb neighboring landowners more than the owner of the land on which the project is sited.

•  Prohibiting projects that would have an “adverse visual impact” on neighbors or viewsheds.

All of the proposed amendments are subject to change as the planning commission tweaks the plan before sending it to the selectboard.

Joining the planning commission Monday evening were a handful of residents, including Democratic state Sen. Chris Bray. Nate Vandal and Chris Cadwell, whose firm Green Peak Solar has proposed a 2.2-MW array on Field Days Road, were on hand to answer technical questions about solar technology.

Planning commission members acknowledged the difficulty of incorporating solar regulation into the town plan: How is it possible to write a long-term plan for a volatile industry that may pose a different set of challenges to municipalities three years down the road? They also wondered if state regulators would be more mindful of New Haven’s concerns if the town was willing to compromise.

Commission Chair Francie Caccavo pondered whether, in the event that New Haven decided to support one large project, the Public Service Board would recognize the town’s willingness to do its part to help the state meet its renewable energy goals and prevent other large projects from being sited in the town.

“If we had the sense to approve a project, does it open the floodgates to other projects?” Caccavo asked. “Or would we get some abatement because we’ve accepted a large project?”

New Haven has just 600 homes. The 2.2-MW Cross Pollination solar farm on Route 7 north of Route 17, produces enough energy to power 400 homes, and should the 2.2-MW Green Peak Solar project receive state approval, those two projects together would result in New Haven producing more electricity than it uses.

Because of its flat, open farmland and access to three-phase power along the VELCO power line corridor, solar firms have eyed New Haven as a prime spot for arrays. But residents say they don’t want to shoulder the burden of the state’s goal to receive 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050.

Planning commission members also debated if language prohibiting projects that have “adverse visual impacts” on neighbors or viewsheds was too vague.

Bray suggested that requirement may be too subjective, and allow neighboring landowners to oppose any structures they deem unsightly.

“It seems like a too-broad net to cast,” Bray said. “If you’re an abutter you could say ‘I don’t like your satellite dish, or your antenna.’”

Caccavo noted that the rule would not satisfy the test the Public Service Board uses to evaluate the aesthetic impact of utility projects. Called the “Quechee Test,” the board precedent mandates that to be prohibited, a project must not only have a negative aesthetic impact, but one that is “undue.”

In many cases, such as the a 150-kW array by SunCommon on Dog Team Road, which neighbors objected to, the board agreed the project harmed the neighbors’ viewshed, but said that impact was not excessive and approved the project.

Some planning commission members raised concerns that a prohibition on using prime agricultural soil for non-farm commercial development may be too restrictive. As much of the town’s open land has high-quality soil, the rule would limit development to select areas and also limit not just solar, but all types of commercial enterprise.

SOLAR FIRM RESPONDS

Cadwell on Tuesday morning said he and Vandal are glad to participate in discussions with the planning commission about amending the town plan, but raised some concerns about the changes.

For one, their 2.2 MW array proposed on Field Days Road is larger than the 1.5 MW limit proposed by the commission. It also may not meet the setback requirements, which the commission has yet to agree on.

Still, Cadwell, said the Green Peaks proposal will benefit New Haven and is an example of responsible solar development.

“We feel that our project is well sited and meets the majority of the proposed siting guidelines,” Cadwell said. “It met all of the guidelines when the project was initially proposed.”

Since Green Peak plans to file its application with the Public Service Board next month, it is unlikely any town plan change would go into effect before the project is approved or rejected by the board.

Cadwell acknowledged that if each town developed its own guidelines for solar projects, solar firms would have to navigate a warren of rules that differ greatly. But it falls on developers, Cadwell said, to understand the rules.

“It is the responsibility of developers to understand the concerns of any town,” he said. “Our industry is receptive to feedback and is up for the task.”

Cadwell added that while residents oppose solar projects for a litany of reasons, many residents in New Haven he has spoken with support both the expansion of solar in general and the Green Peaks project in particular.

“We encourage town residents that support solar to come to meetings,” he said.

The planning commission will continue to amend its proposed solar standards at future meetings; its next meeting is Jan. 12.

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