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Editorial: Disconnect between solar industry, neighbors widents

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Posted on November 19, 2015 |
By Angelo S. Lynn



Put yourself in this scenario: Two years ago you buy a home in rural Addison County with scenic views to the west overlooking farm land to the Adirondacks. You buy in Vermont because you value its traditions of local control and its emphasis on maintaining an environmental and scenic aesthetic.

Fast-forward two years and you suddenly find the scenic view looking west might now be filled with a 150kW solar array. While the town has been informed, there was no due process that is in anyway akin to Act 250; that is, even though you might complain and even though the project might violate the town’s own goals of protecting scenic vistas, the process precludes local control. Rather, it is dictated by the state’s Public Service Board.

Feeling powerless and betrayed by the system, you nonetheless file a complaint to the PSB to deny the project’s Certificate of Public Good. It’s your only recourse and it’s a long shot.

That is one side of the story that depicts the disagreement between a couple from the town of Addison and the solar energy company SunCommon. It is also a story that encapsulates the fundamental disconnect between the solar industry and the individual landowners who are negatively affected by solar development.

At issue is the common disgruntlement about a landowner building on a part of their land that significantly compromises their neighbor’s enjoyment of their land. Dueling letters have been exchanged and printed in this newspaper and other media. In today’s issue, SunCommon counters a letter printed 10 days ago by the Rev. Dr. Stephanie Allen, the affected neighbor.

In the SunCommon letter, CEO Duane Peterson tries to set the record straight by harping on a few points: the town of Addison was not “bypassed” by the solar company in pursuit of its application for this 150kW project, as the Rev. Allen maintains; on the contrary, the company communicated with the town on numerous occasions so that the town was “very aware” of the project; similarly, he emphasizes the point that solar panels are an integral part of the agricultural landscape that should be synonymous with barns and silos. The landowner has the right to build on his own land, he says.

The disconnect is plain. While SunCommon clearly is obeying the current rules in place and is notifying the towns of upcoming projects, that does not mean the process itself doesn’t “bypass” town authority. Just because a town is “aware” of a pending project does not mean its authority hasn’t been bypassed. Similarly, while a good case can be made that solar arrays are an integral part of today’s agricultural landscape, that’s a discussion that towns and the state legislature should be having, just as the state did when banning billboards back in the early 1970s. Certainly, there is not a soul among us who considers the aesthetics of a rustic, red barn against Vermont’s bucolic landscape in the same manner as we view a field of solar panels.

Defining that aesthetic is at the heart of the growing angst between affected neighbors and the landowners who are hosting solar arrays.

But there is more to the story here. The solutions that seem reasonable to employ — screening the solar array with trees and moving it farther from the neighbor’s house — don’t always work. In this case, the screening itself would block the sunset view the neighbors hoped to enjoy. And the array can’t be moved in any significant way because the lot on which it is intended is confined and restricted by other uses (in this case, rented land to another farmer and the wetlands.)

Here’s Rev. Allen’s comment written to the PSB addressing those issues:

“The information that SunCommon has provided in the Application is untrue and misleading. At no point did SunCommon move the array further from our view or property line. In fact, it was just the opposite. The property owners (Boudreaus) have very little viable options on their 10 acres due to leasing of land for farming and the sizeable wetland; therefore, the only option is to keep the array close to our house, site line and property view.”

Equally troubling is this: the solar array is sited on land just behind the neighbor’s house that blocks their westerly views, while leaving the landowner’s views to the west unimpeded. And that is a key difference between a traditional farm and its silos or barns, and solar arrays. In traditional farming, the infrastructure was centrally contained around the farmhouse. It’s exactly the opposite with solar arrays. The arrays are typically as far from the landowner’s house as possible, and certainly not infringing on their own viewshed. That is aptly demonstrated in the map filed with Rev. Allen’s complaint sent to the PSB: http://vce.org/Allen_Suncommon_150kW_PSB_Intervention_Nov62015.pdf.

Importantly, there is no right or wrong in this particular instance. We are not criticizing SunCommon’s effort to build solar arrays on land that the property owner wishes to develop. The current process allows that to happen. The landowner and the solar company are within their legal rights to pursue that option. But to call this a “neighborly” process and their efforts purely altruistic is a stretch, and the process being followed is hurting the long-term cause of the solar industry.

As the Legislature’s solar siting task force considers how to weave these various concerns into amendments to Act 56, the renewable energy legislation passed this past session, it may find it nearly impossible to write legislation that could reasonably cover all scenarios. That’s why local control or a process akin to Act 250 is the better bet.

What’s clear is that the PSB does not have the capacity to deliberate on the hundreds of solar applications filed each year. What’s clear is that neighbors to the hosts of solar arrays should have a greater voice in the process, and that towns should as well. What’s also clear is that for the state to reach its goal of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050, the residents of Vermont and the renewable energy sector will have to site projects in ways that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but earn the community’s support — while also reducing the state’s reliance on fossil fuels. The challenge for the solar siting task force is to develop a process by which those are mutually inclusive goals.

— Angelo S. Lynn

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