After opposition, SunCommon pulls plug on solar array

NEW HAVEN — A Vermont solar company has withdrawn a proposal for a solar array near Route 7 in New Haven after neighbors complained it would be an eyesore and hurt their business.
Waterbury firm SunCommon had planned to site a one-acre, 150-kilowatt Community Solar Array (CSA) on Route 7 just south of Town Hill Road, on land owned by the Gilbert family. The site was behind Tourterelle inn and restaurant.
Tourterelle owners Bill and Christine Snell opposed the project because they worried it would negatively affect their business. Bill Snell said Tourterelle often hosts weddings and other events on the expansive lawn behind the inn, which has beautiful views of Lake Champlain and the mountains beyond in New York state. The couple feared that the array would ruin those views.
“You have that picture of the beautiful Adirondacks, and that would not exist, because you’d just see a row of solar panels,” Snell said. He believed the array could cut their wedding bookings in half.
Snell said he and his wife do not oppose solar, but rather want arrays to be sited with minimal impact on adjacent landowners and passersby.
“We’re not against solar panels going up, but not in the view from somebody’s house,” Snell said. “If you’re going to put them up, put them on a roof or where no one else can see them.”
Snell added that SunCommon was receptive to their concerns.
“They listened and they stopped it right away,” he said.
In the future, Snell said other solar companies should work with municipalities to site arrays with aesthetic concerns in mind. If not, Snell said, solar arrays will deter tourists from visiting Vermont.
Duane Peterson, co-founder of SunCommon, said Tuesday that the company is committed to listening to neighbors’ concerns when siting solar projects. After receiving opposition to the project on the Gilbert property, SunCommon pulled the plug.
“When we learned of Tourterelle’s concerns about the CSA, we decided to stop moving forward,” Peterson said. “We recognized Tourterelle as a community institution regularly visited by New Haven residents and concluded that a solar array at this location wouldn’t work.”
Peterson said the project was still in the planning stage, and the company cancelled it before submitting an application to the Public Service Board.
SunCommon has built seven Community Solar Arrays in Addison County to date, and plans to build two more in the near future. Peterson said the company wants to build arrays in locations that are most appropriate.
“Before any designs were drawn and before any applications were filed, we made sure to talk with the neighboring landowners about our intentions,” he said. “This is a valuable part of our process, one that allows neighbors a voice in how and where these arrays are sited.”
The New Haven Planning Commission has taken an interest in solar projects proposed in the town. Though the Public Service Board has the sole authority to site and regulate solar projects, the planning commission has often written letters to the PSB expressing concerns about particular projects, acting as an advocate of residents.
“Every project that’s proposed in New Haven comes before our board,” co-chair Rob Litch said. “Unfortunately the recent history is the PSB has the ultimate say and can apparently choose to disregard our town plan and input from the community.”
Litch said the planning commission never formally evaluated a plan for the Gilbert solar array because it was never submitted to the Public Service Board, but said the members had some initial concerns about the location.
“It seemed that it was a poor siting,” he said. “Ultimately it affected the neighbors considerably.”
New Haven is also in the process of rewriting its town plan. Litch said the planning commission is hoping to more clearly define the role townspeople want solar to play in New Haven’s future.
“Certainly solar is one of the areas we could use stronger language to better represent what the community has voiced to us,” Litch said.
The current town plan, written in 2011, suggests that solar arrays in town should not be larger than 300 kilowatts, but does not address siting concerns. Ideas the planning commission has discussed incorporating into the new iteration include setting size limits on projects, mandating vegetative screening and setbacks from roads and neighbors, and protecting prime agricultural soil from commercial development.

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