Editorial: Solar misfire; scrap it, try again

Legislation can be well intended, but misses the mark so far it actually makes things worse.
Such is the case with recent changes to H.40, the renewable energy bill that was passed out of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee last Thursday on a 5-0 vote. At issue was language added to establish minimum setbacks and provide towns the right to impose appropriate screening standards.
The intent was spot on. The details were not. The committee proposed minimum setbacks that are so lax they are illogical. For the smallest solar array projects (under 15 kW), no setbacks would be required; for projects under 150 kW the minimum setback would be 25 feet from an abutting property line; for projects over 150 kW, a 50-foot setback was proposed. If the project abuts a town road or highway, the setback would be 40 to 100 feet. In all instances, that is — for all practical purposes — smack in your face.
As New Haven Selectman Jim Walsh says in a story in today’s paper, in most that’s less than the 50-foot setback the town currently has to build a shed or a shack, let alone the 100-feet setback required of any commercial development. As for the highway setback at 40 feet, Walsh noted that puts development of solar projects within the town’s right-of-way. Both proposals are absurd, and would, in fact, codify in law what is now fought in legal suits.
Give the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee credit, however, for finally hearing the towns’ pleas for more involvement and trying to address the issue in this session. Committee chairman Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, claimed the committee was making a “sea-change in direction” for the state by giving towns more say, and that was true to a small degree. Towns would now gain automatic party status (but most towns do this anyway), and developers would have to follow town standards for screening projects, although the legislation suggests the standards can be no more onerous on renewable energy projects than on any similar commercial development.
Both measures make sense, but neither address the bigger problems.
What has irked towns and outraged abutting neighbors is the lack of transparency leading up to projects until near to the last minute when the projects are about to be filed and the lack of appropriate setbacks. And by setting setbacks at such low minimums, these new provisions would codify into law the very thing that has outraged residents and towns. That’s not good legislation, and the proposal should be defeated as it is now written — or amended on the Senate floor.
But let’s back up. There are solar projects that are being done well. In New Haven, the so-called Cross Pollination solar array that lies two miles north of Junction 17 on Route 7 is perfectly sited. It sits about 400 feet off Route 7, is angled in such a way as to minimize the scenic impact of the panels, and encourages the grazing of sheep in the field around the panels. It’s overall effect is one in which the commercial solar array meshes well with surrounding agricultural uses, and it adds interest to the scenic environment.
In Middlebury, a groSolar project behind the Suburban Propane lot (across the road and a block south of Foster Motors on Route 7) is so well landscaped and hidden behind the initial façade of commercial buildings that it barely noticeable, yet it is of significant size. Another Middlebury development near the Residence at Otter Creek demonstrates that solar arrays can be located off the major thoroughfares, but close to three-phase power, and completely avoid any scenic degradation as well as appease all neighbors. Even the smaller projects, like the one just north of Foster Motors on Route 7 or beside Vermont Sun in Middlebury or the larger project just east of the Vergennes Union High School on Route 7, all fit comfortably in their skins because the locations are already within a commercial setting.
What’s grating is when solar projects are smack up against the roadway in rural areas, blocking scenic vistas or so close to abutting properties as to be offensive and ruinous to that person’s property values.
It need not be so. Like the screening requirements, the committee could have recommended towns and renewable energy developers adhere to existing setbacks for commercial projects, or because solar projects are often larger than most commercial projects the committee might have suggested adding to those setbacks. Rather than 25 feet, 250 feet may be more appropriate. That’s the scale of change that needs to be made on the proposed setbacks and it could be tailored to the aesthetic impact on the particular parcel.
But time is now short to debate such specific changes and suggest them as law. Here, however, is a short-term fix: 1) Amend the Senate committee’s proposed setbacks as the same for all commercial properties; plus sunset these setback and screening provisions for a year or until new legislation replaces it. That gives towns some of the involvement they need, adds temporary screening and setback requirements as with any other commercial property, while still providing ample room for growth of renewable energy.
It’s still not ideal, but if that much could be done, it’s progress without causing egregious harm with the dozen or so projects already bid out for the upcoming year. Still, legislators, renewable energy advocates and town leaders should work through the summer and fall to come up with creative ways to ensure the state maximizes its renewable energy capacity while preserving the state’s bucolic ambiance. The two goals are compatible, and the politics should be as well.
Angelo S. Lynn

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