Editorial: Solar power/town aesthetics? It’s not an either-or proposition

The Vermont Senate killed a bill on the floor last week, 21-8, that would have provided towns some control over how solar power projects were sited. Among other things, the bill, S.191, sought to require ground-mounted solar installations to comply with the same town zoning and screening requirements as does other commercial development.
The bill failed because a majority of the Senate thought the restrictions were too onerous and would impede the development of solar power throughout the state. Such impediments, opponents said, would make it difficult for the state to reach its goal of producing 90 percent of the state’s energy by renewable sources by 2050.
The majority made its point, but that’s not to deny validity to the concern that triggered the bill. If S.191 was too restrictive, then more work needs to be done to find a suitable solution.
The problem is that permits for larger solar operations are springing up so fast in communities like Rutland town and Charlotte that they worry their landscape will become overrun and the small-town charm and bucolic aesthetics will be lost.
Don Chioffi, clerk of the Rutland Town Select Board, testified to the Senate Natural Resources Committee earlier this month, that the town was simply trying to keep ahead of the curve by asking to have a voice at the table when solar power projects are sited.
As reported by Vtdigger, Chioffi told the committee: “Like most of the rest of the state, we have been pretty much overwhelmed by the rapid expansion of the solar industry within our state… and we have been attempting to get head of a steeply rising curve. We do not want this quality (rural charm) destroyed by unregulated and industrial solar.”
Sens. Diane Snelling, R-Shelburne, Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, and Chair Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington, were part of the committee that drafted S.191. They should be encouraged to try again.
As Snelling said, while everyone is in favor of solar power, not all of the solar installations are “the most beautiful things to look at.”
Surely everyone agrees it is common sense to preserve the state’s aesthetic charm while also creating ways to generate more solar power and other sources of renewable energy. This is not an either-or proposition.
But if towns have no voice in deciding where solar installations can be sited, and the Public Service Board and Department of Public Service are fixated on granting solar power permits if they meet the narrow public good of reaching an energy goal, then aesthetics and local input are jeopardized. That’s a mistake that needs to be rectified.
There is precedent: Communication towers are an example. While towns may not prohibit them from locating within a town, the community has control over how they fit into the town landscape. Solar power projects could be similarly treated: Stipulate that towns must allow solar projects (perhaps to a respectful level of saturation), but can define through zoning the best places for them, as well as protect aesthetic vistas where they should not be allowed.
As we rightfully encourage solar power projects to meet the state’senergy needs, let’s do it respectfully and allow towns to have a voice as to how that goal is best accomplished.
Angelo S. Lynn

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