Ferrisburgh to move forward on Encore solar project

FERRISBURGH — About three months after the offer was first made, the Ferrisburgh selectboard on Feb. 5 voted unanimously to sign a letter of intent with Burlington firm Encore Redevelopment that could pave the way for a solar array on town-owned land.
Encore officials believe that a lease deal for a parcel at the intersection of Routes 7 and 22A could put almost $500,000 in Ferrisburgh’s coffers over the next two decades.
Ferrisburgh selectboard chairwoman Loretta Lawrence said last week board members would sign the letter of intent as soon as it received a positive review by the town attorney.
Encore proposed in November to put a 500-kilowatt solar array on about 3.5 acres of land that is part of the 34.9-acre parcel Ferrisburgh owns at the junction of the state highways.
The company — which has done business with Middlebury, Milton, South Burlington and Middlebury College and is negotiating with Vergennes — said it will pay Ferrisburgh $10,000 a year for 20 years to lease the 3.5 acres, plus an estimated $2,000 a year in taxes.  
On top of that, the deal essentially calls for Encore to sell the electricity to Ferrisburgh at current prices for the duration of the lease. Because power prices typically rise by an average of 3 percent a year, Encore’s Chad Farrell estimated that savings for town buildings, including Ferrisburgh Central School and Ferrisburgh’s share of the Vergennes Union High School bill, would come to about $255,000 over 20 years.
Ferrisburgh would also have the right to buy the array at lease’s end, or to request that Encore remove it.
The selectboard initially took no action, saying they were uncertain about the deal’s long-term viability and the solar array’s potential impact on the marketability of the nearby 9-acre parcel that the town has been trying to sell. That lot is also part of the larger 34.9-acre tract.
Meanwhile, Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley learned of the potential benefits of the Encore arrangement in early January and immediately contacted the company. Vergennes aldermen approved a letter of intent with Encore late last month.
At the urging of others — including town energy committee head Bob McNary and real estate broker Carl Cole, who has been advising the board on marketing the 9-acre parcel — the board decided in January to ask the town attorney to review the proposed lease. That review included a look at whether it would be possible to put the array on land that is zoned for conservation.
Lawrence said last week that review was favorable, leading to the Feb. 5 decision to proceed with the letter of intent.
“It appears the lease deal would not be a problem,” Lawrence said.
If board members have any lingering questions, she hopes they can be answered as the process moves along.
“We made the motion to move forward with the letter of intent,” Lawrence said. “It’s not anything binding … (Now) we can have serious conversations on both sides.”
She hopes those talks can begin soon.
“As soon as we get the letter of intent (back from the attorney), we’ll be meeting with Chad and Encore,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence said Encore and Ferrisburgh would have to apply for a “modified Act 250 permit” before an array could be installed.
Farrell said in an email last week that he hoped talks with the town would now move smoothly and allow an array to be installed this year, although the timing also hinges on the project design.
“(It) depends on ultimate project size, which would … affect the duration of the permitting process,” Farrell wrote. “But we would still be in decent position to have a project constructed in 2013 should we reach agreement on the letter of intent and keep the process rolling in a timely fashion toward a fully executed contract.”
At the same time, the Ferrisburgh selectboard is also looking at getting the saleable portion of its land back on the market. The land had been listed for sale for $375,000 since September 2010 with Pomerleau Real Estate, but that marketing agreement ended on Jan. 1.
Lawrence said the board will sit down at its next meeting (scheduled for Feb. 19) with a representative of Burlington commercial brokerage firm Redstone to discuss a new arrangement.
Lawrence said the board felt it got good service from Pomerleau, but both the board and the firm felt it was time to move on.
“Pomerleau has done a wonderful job. It was a mutual agreement,” Lawrence said.
One item that will probably be discussed on the 19th is whether the $375,000 asking price for the land is appropriate.
“That’s a fair statement,” Lawrence said.
Meanwhile, Hawley is expecting proposals back next week from both Encore and Waterbury firm SunCommon about smaller solar arrays at the Vergennes sewer plant, both on the ground and mounted on its roof.
A 149-kilowatt array could be mounted on the ground in a lease deal with either firm and could provide electricity that, like the larger array Encore is proposing in Ferrisburgh, would be sent into the grid and credited to the city’s account at a discounted rate over time.
Hawley described that arrangement as an “after-meter net-metering” arrangement.
He also is talking with SunCommon about mounting solar panels on the plant roof to provide power directly to the facility, with any additional power generated going into the grid; he called that a “before-the-meter net-metering” arrangement.
Hawley had first hoped to find a city site large enough to accommodate a 500-kilowatt array, which would produce 700,000 kilowatt hours a year. But an Encore study determined there was not a suitable city-owned site in Vergennes.
Hawley also said Vergennes’ total consumption, not including its union schools, is about 500,000 kilowatt hours, a situation that complicates the city’s ability to accept all the power a 500kw array would produce.
The site question and the complexity of involving schools that serve multiple communities led him to focus on serving the treatment plant, at least to start.
“The combination of those two (ground and roof arrays) would take care of the wastewater treatment plant, and I wouldn’t have to find a different site,” Hawley said.
But he has kept in touch with Addison Northwest Supervisory Union officials to keep the 500kw option open. If a landowner in or near Vergennes agrees to lease land to Encore or SunCommon, and the city and its schools commit to an agreement to purchase power that allows the firms to sell tax credits up front, Hawley said a deal like that being worked on in Ferrisburgh remains possible.
“I haven’t abandoned that,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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