New Haven resident pitches solar park idea

NEW HAVEN — As New Haven sorts through more than a dozen solar projects proposed in town, a resident has an idea that he says would mollify the siting concerns of neighbors and also allow solar firms to make the best use of the town’s abundance of flat, open farmland.
Residents have raised concerns about the Public Service Board approving one-acre, 150-kilowatt solar arrays to be built in residential areas, often a stone’s throw from their homes. Some say they’re ugly, while others are concerned that nearby arrays will devalue their property.
Jim Walsh thinks he has a solution: to create specific areas in town — solar parks, if you will — where many small solar projects could be sited. The parks could be in specially created solar zoning districts that are far from homes, and since projects could be sited adjacent to each other, firms could share construction and maintenance resources.
Walsh, who serves on the town planning commission but is pitching the idea as a private citizen, said these solar parks wouldn’t just benefit New Haven, but any town grappling with a deluge of solar array proposals.
“A lot of the one-acre arrays are ending up on small parcels, which is creating neighbor issues,” Walsh said in an interview this past Wednesday.
Walsh sent his idea to town and regional officials, as well as state legislators. He said in order for it to be fully implemented, the idea would have to be implemented by each of those actors. The Legislature would have to ask (or require) the Public Service Board to prioritize solar parks as the best location for arrays, regional planning commissions would have to include similar considerations in regional plans, and municipalities could amend their town plans and create special solar zoning districts.
In theory, these actions would give towns more influence over how solar projects are regulated, particularly how large they can be and where they are sited. Presently, that authority lies with the Public Service Board, a three-member body that is not bound by municipal plans or zoning laws.
A solar park in New Haven, Walsh said, would accommodate projects that comply with the town plan, which discourages solar projects larger than 300 kilowatts. Walsh said an example of these small projects are the 150-kilowatt Community Solar Arrays, or CSAs, that Waterbury firm SunCommon is building throughout the state (the company hopes to site at least eight in Addison County).
“As each of these CSA projects would fall under the maximum size recommendation, the clustering of the different projects on one site would comply with the town plan,” Walsh wrote to town officials and legislators. “This type of development could also spare some of the more scenic areas in town if thought out carefully.”
Walsh said the state or towns could further encourage solar firms to build in designated solar parks by levying an additional tax or fee on arrays built in other areas.
“The tax structure could be different for the town; if you don’t use this area your education fund contribution out of your solar project could be different for the state,” Walsh suggested. “It’s going to be more lucrative for you to go to this spot because your taxes will be the same; if you want to go outside … you’ll pay more.”
New Haven selectboard chair Kathleen Barrett said the board is open to discussing Walsh’s plan.
At first glance, she said she was concerned that it would be difficult for New Haven and other towns to decide where to put these solar parks.
“I think it would be extremely difficult to decide where those parks would be appropriate,” Barrett said.
She also conceded that by the time the idea of a solar park could be codified by a state or local body, it would do little to help New Haven.
“There are so many (arrays) that have been approved in various places and are in various stages of the approval process,” Barrett said.
Walsh said he hopes several legislators — from Addison County or from around the state — take up his idea when the Legislature reconvenes in January. He sent his proposal to Sen. David Zuckerman, D-Hinesburg, and Addison County Democrats Sen. Chris Bray of New Haven and Sen. Claire Ayer of Addison.
“It would take a legislator or two to take it on as an issue,” Walsh said.

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