New Haven planners eye solar farm project

NEW HAVEN — The New Haven Planning Commission Tuesday afternoon began the process of weighing in on a proposal by Cross Pollination LLC to build a solar farm off Route 7.
Commissioners acknowledged in a draft letter to the Public Service Board (PSB) that while the company’s potential solar installation largely fits New Haven’s town plan, large questions remain about how the solar farm would be executed, operated and ultimately decommissioned.
If constructed, the 40-acre solar farm would be one of the largest in the state, featuring 178 ground-mounted solar trackers capable of generating enough electricity to power 500 homes each year. Williston-based engineers are proposing to build the facility on a 180-acre parcel zoned for agricultural use on the west side of Route 7, across from the Hill Top RV Center.
The remaining 140 acres would be home to an organic farm, focused primarily on raising beef cattle and sheep as well as vegetables.
The commission’s conversation Tuesday touched on compromise: Though commissioners agreed that the solar installation could mar the traditional scenic beauty of the rural Route 7 corridor, some members of the body felt a solar farm, if built under the right conditions, could provide an innovative model for both energy production and agricultural viability.
“I think we have to look forward and not back. We can’t think about farms the way they were. We have to think about farms the way they might be,” said Francie Caccavo. “If we think about farms in the future, what are they going to look like? How are they going to maintain themselves?”
In addition to providing a chance for a small farm to take root, Caccavo also expressed the belief that New Haven can’t afford to look at the solar installation without thinking about the reality of peak oil and the necessity for developing renewable sources of energy.
“We have some responsibility to go there, whether it’s in Hew Haven or Vergennes or wherever,” Caccavo said. “I think there is some responsibility on the part of the public to address renewable energy. It’s got to be somewhere.”
By and large, the planning commission determined that the proposed solar farm did fit the parameters of the town’s 2006 town plan, and said as much in its preliminary draft letter to the PSB.
Commission chair Jim Walsh said Tuesday’s meeting was just the first step for the commission, which has until early July to file a finalized letter with the PSB.
Walsh and commissioner Bill Brooks argued on Tuesday for putting some “teeth” into the proposal. Walsh said he’d like to see the parcel put into some sort of agricultural easement to ensure that Cross Pollination follows through with its plans for developing a farm, and the board urged the PSB to make Cross Pollination’s intention to farm a requirement for moving ahead.
“It’ s just like down the Gulf (of Mexico). (BP) said they would do certain things, and they could tap this thing in an emergency. This whole plan says they intend to do this. It’s always intent,” Brooks said. “Let’s say they can’t do this because they don’t have any money, or they can’t hire the right people — then we’ve made a decision based on an intent.” 
In addition to asking for a requirement that farming be included in the final proposal, the board also pushed for other conditions, asking that Cross Pollination reduce the potential glare from the bright white support structure for the panels; share the financial prospectus for the project; demonstrate available financial resources for completing the project and decommissioning it down the road; and investigate the potential traffic risk associated with the turnoff for an educational kiosk on Route 7.
The board also asked for the right to comment on Green Mountain Power’s upgrade of its power lines.
The issue of compensation cropped up, too. Walsh recommended that Cross Pollination and GMP consider a fund modeled on the “Good Neighbor Fund” GMP introduce d to compensate landowners near a wind project in the town of Lowell.
Walsh said such a fund could be used to “make whole” those parties who would be most directly affected by the proposed solar project.
Tuesday’s meeting came on the heels of a site visit to the 180-acre parcel, currently owned by Albert and Gail Freyer, on June 19. At that point, Cross Pollination provided the town with a revised proposal for the solar farm, which included changes based on a public hearing on June 8 and a more complete farming plan.
Paul Lekstutis, one of the owners of Cross Pollination, said the group decided to reconfigure the position of the solar array to address concerns of some of the abutting landowners. While the property owners would still have a view of the panels, Lekstutis said, the array would no longer be positioned directly in front of their homes.
He also said that Cross Pollination is amenable to making changes that the planning commission has pushed for. He said he’s checking with the manufacturer of the solar panels to make sure that painting the backs would not void any warranties, and was hopeful that the development could paint the galvanized steel support structure any color the town might wish.
On the topic of decommissioning, Lekstutis said the company has no plans to “cut and run” after Cross Pollination’s possible 25-year contract with the state is up. He anticipates the lifespan of the panels will run for more than 50 years, at which point Cross Pollination plans to decommission the facility. He did not outline specific plans for a decommissioning fund to guarantee that process.
As for carrying through with the plan to keep the parcel in agricultural use, Lekstutis said that farming is core to the business’s model and philosophy.
“Our whole philosophy is integrating sustainable farming with renewable energy. One of the pillars we’re looking to promote is sustainable farming,” he said. “We’re going to move forward with it.”
Cross Pollination has until July 15 to file for approval with the PSB, though Lekstutis said the company hopes to do so about a week before the deadline.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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