Solar house placement hits zoning roadbump

MIDDLEBURY — As construction on the Middlebury College Solar Decathlon house continues, its ultimate resting place has come under scrutiny by the town’s Development Review Board and residents of the Chipman Park neighborhood.
The house is entering its final stages of construction in a parking lot below the college, and this fall it — and its student builders — will head down to Washington, D.C., to pit their energy-efficient house against those of 19 other academic teams from around the world in a competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Following the competition, the students plan to permanently reassemble the building on campus. In early June, the college filed its application to place the house on Porter Field Road, behind the college’s admission building and at the far end of a parking lot from its arts building.
But at a public hearing of the Middlebury Development Review Board this Monday, residents of the Chipman Park neighborhood — which abuts the proposed plot for the house — turned out to register their dissent regarding the proposed location of the building.
While all residents at the meeting voiced support for the ideals of the project, those who spoke argued that the placement of the house will encroach on a buffer zone between campus and the college, established by the Middlebury Planning Commission in 2002 as a compromise between residents and the college.
The written agreement allowed the college to expand a parking lot next to its arts building by close to 400 spaces and to move Porter Field Road closer to the backyards of Chipman Park residents.
In return, the college agreed to maintain and landscape a berm, or hill, to block residents from lights and noise from the parking lot. The 2002 document establishes the berm as a “permanent landscaped buffer” between the residential neighborhood and the campus.
Chipman Park resident Barbara Tomb said at the meeting that she remembered the original compromise very clearly.
“I said to John (Barstow, head of the planning commission at the time), ‘I don’t want to be back here in 10 years going through this again.’ That’s why the word ‘permanent’ was put in there,” she said.
Barstow, who attended the meeting, said he feels that the proposal directly conflicts with that document.
“It is, I feel, an abrogation of trust and intent of the berm,” said Barstow.
On Tuesday, Barstow said he never imagined this sort of proposal when he worked on the 2002 agreement.
“If we’d imagined there would be a proposal to build something on it, we probably would have been more explicit,” said Barstow.
Middlebury College Vice President of Administration Tim Spears maintained that the proposed Solar Decathlon house site is respectful of the buffer zone, stating that the house would be placed more than 100 feet from the property line, a spot that is technically north of the berm.
“We’re committed to honoring the spirit of that agreement,” said Spears. “As I read the 2002 agreement, I see a document that … concerns, principally, cars and parking.”
Spears said the location was chosen for its proximity to campus utilities, its walkability to town, its visibility to the public and to students, and its exposure to the sun.
He said that in his reading, a three- or four-student, 1,000-square-foot residential structure was not addressed by the 2002 agreement. He added that residents of the house would be vetted to ensure their commitment to the ideas around which the house is being built, and that it would also be used as a teaching structure, integrated with the curriculum of the environmental studies and architecture departments. He stressed that student residents would not be hosting parties.
But Patty Hallam, the closest neighbor to the proposed site, said that when people walk by the berm, she can hear every word that they are saying from her backyard — a privacy issue that would only be accentuated by the placement of a residence on that plot.
“I just think we’re each going to know what the other’s doing all the time. I’ll know when they sneeze, and they me,” she said on Tuesday. “For me, it’s about their privacy and mine. I want these students to have a little fun. I don’t want them to be whispering all the time.”
Hallam and other residents at the meeting were careful to emphasize their support for the project itself — just not its proposed placement.
“I hope the students understand that it’s nothing personal,” said Hallam.
“The students were wonderful in that the project is idealistic — it’s where we all want to be moving,” said Tomb on Tuesday. “It’s just really important for the college and the residents of the town to be good neighbors. To be part of a community, you have to meet the neighbors’ needs as well.”
Following what town planner Fred Dunnington said was an unexpectedly high turnout to the meeting, the board voted to recess the hearing. It can choose to ask involved parties for more information or decide the matter privately, and Dunnington said there will be a decision within 45 days of when the hearing is adjourned.
He emphasized, however, that the decision will be based not on town resident input but on town policy and on the college’s 2008 master plan, which, he added, designates the buffer zone on Porter Field Road as a protected “green reserve” area.
College officials declined to comment on the issue following the hearing, citing the ongoing discussion over the house’s placement.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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