New Haven grapples with expansion of solar arrays

NEW HAVEN — A New Haven couple has raised concerns about a solar array that was recently approved — over their objection — for construction near their Dog Team Road home.
This episode and a series of proposed solar projects in town, including one that would be among the largest ever built in Vermont, have many residents wondering what will become of their beautiful views of the landscape.
The Public Service Board on Sept. 10 approved a 1-acre, 150-kilowatt solar array at 1195 Dog Team Road, on property owned by John Meshna. The project will be built by SunCommon, a solar firm based in Waterbury, and will connect to the Green Mountain Power grid for distribution.
Jess Whitney and Dale Hastings, who are retired, live on the property adjacent to Meshna’s. They built their home in 2001, and chose the location because of the scenic views of the Green Mountains to the east, across Route 7.
“This view is why we spent our money to have our home here,” Whitney said.
Hastings said he does not understand how such a large project could be approved in an area not zoned for commercial use. According to town records, lots off Dog Team Road are zoned RA-2, for rural and agricultural use.
“Our concern is that we’re living in a residential area, and this is going to be a 150-kilowatt commercial operation, which is enough to power 30 homes,” Hastings said.
According to case documents, the solar array will be 25 feet from their property line and 75 feet from their home. To mitigate the view, SunCommon has pledged to plant a row of arborvitae hedges, which the company said “will grow to a maximum of 25 feet and have a dense canopy.”
Whitney and Hastings say the hedges may partially shield their view of the solar panels, but will also block their cherished views of the mountains. Whitney said SunCommon could site the project on a different property, in an area that is zoned for commercial use.
“They have a choice,” Whitney said. “They don’t have to use this field.”
Whitney said they are frustrated because they believe both they and the town have little say in a project that affects their quality of life.
“We’re law abiding people, we pay our taxes, and we would register our dogs if we had any,” Whitney said. “What’s the sense of living in Vermont anymore?”
The couple also worries that the solar array will devalue their property. Their home and 4.9 acres are currently assessed at $269,000.
Meshna, the owner of the property where the project will be built, said he looks forward to seeing the panels installed, but declined to comment further about the project.
“I’m glad it’s going through,” he said.
The New Haven Planning Commission wrote to the Public Service Board that the project did not meet many town planning statutes, such as that it did not meet setback requirements and that the array would be in view of both nearby Route 7 and the Whitney and Hastings property.
The town plan states that development in rural areas, such as Dog Team Road, must be evaluated to determine potential impacts on “sensitive natural resources, access and scenic considerations.”
However, the town plan also encourages the expansion of local renewable energy resources, including solar.
Nevertheless, the town has no binding authority in the matter. State law says only the Public Service Board has authority in siting of utility projects like solar power arrays.
The Public Service Board agreed that the project would have an “adverse impact on the aesthetics of the area,” but determined that the effect would not be too severe, noting that trees planted by the developer would help obscure the project from neighbors and motorists.
“While these measures will not entirely conceal the project from view, they provide sufficient mitigation so as to prevent the project from having an unduly adverse aesthetic impact,” the board wrote in its Sept. 10 order approving the project. “A Certificate of Public Good should be issued without further investigation or hearing.”
SunCommon spokesman Mike McCarthy said the company often hears concerns from neighbors about potential solar projects, and does its best to mitigate them.
“We want to be good neighbors and talk to people as much as possible,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy said SunCommon does not need approval from town boards for projects, and instead sends project applications to the Public Service Board, which regulates the state’s utilities.
“The permitting for that type of an array is entirely through the Public Service Board,” McCarthy said. “Our policy with this relatively new program is to do a lot of community outreach, but we don’t go through the town.”
He said that when SunCommon signs a preliminary agreement with a landowner and seeks approval through the Public Service Board, the company does alert town selectboards and regional planning commissions about the proposed project.
McCarthy said SunCommon does not have a specific policy about how it accommodates town zoning laws, but said he personally views solar arrays as agricultural, not commercial use.
“It’s a way to get a use out of land that’s not used for traditional agriculture,” McCarthy said. “We see it on the level of sharing your land for a community garden.”
McCarthy said that popular opinion and state policy encourage the expansion of solar, and said that SunCommon is committed to helping Vermont reach its goal of getting 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050.
“We’re not going to get there if we succumb to every single complaint about solar arrays,” McCarthy said. “In the future, solar panels are going to be as ubiquitous as barns and silos, and we should be working toward it, not against it.”
This will be the second solar project built in New Haven in recent years. In 2012, Cross Pollination Inc. built a 2.2-megawatt solar farm on Route 7. There are also several other proposed solar projects in the town: another on Dog Team Road, two on Route 7, one on Campground Road and one on Field Days Road.
GroSolar, a solar firm based in White River Junction, this past Tuesday proposed to the selectboard two 40-acre, 5-megawatt solar arrays: one on Sawyer Road and another on Route 7 just south of Town Hill Road. The projects, which could each power about 800 homes, would be among the largest solar arrays ever built in the state.
Each array would be about twice the size of the Cross Pollination project, which groSolar helped build.
GroSolar Executive Vice President of Operations Rod Viens said his company does not need town approval for these projects, but seeks town input to ensure the state permitting process goes smoothly.
“We would like to have town and regional planning commission support,” Viens said. “We want to make them comfortable in the project and in our approach, so that they don’t intervene in our (Public Service Board) petitions.”
In contrast with SunCommon’s approach in New Haven, Viens said groSolar likes to keep local officials informed about projects.
“We just think it’s better to go to the towns first to see what their thoughts are on the initial proposal, to see if we can work on them for setbacks and screening,” Viens said. “We’d rather be working with the town and have their support.”
Viens said he understands that residents may be concerned about losing scenic views in New Haven, but said the projects align with the town’s long history of agriculture and conservation. He said that for both locations, property owners approached groSolar, looking for a way to make the best use of their land.
“It’s a way to keep properties in their families,” Viens said. “These families have been in Vermont for a long time, and appreciate the scenic beauty in Vermont.”
Viens said groSolar is preparing materials to formally file a petition for the projects with the Public Service Board, and added that the company plans to keep residents and town officials informed along the way.
Though the project would not be subject to town approval, it could come under scrutiny when the Public Service Board examines New Haven’s town plan, which discourages solar projects larger than 300 kilowatts.
Residents added that provision to the town plan in 2011, one year after Cross Pollination submitted its application for its 2.2-megawatt facility on Route 7.
The sum of the power generated by groSolar’s two proposals is 10 megawatts, 33 times the limit suggested in the town plan.

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