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Editorial: Ferrisburgh says no, but PSB holds the cards

The Ferrisburgh selectboard took the bold action of rejecting three of five proposed solar arrays filed this past month saying that the proposed locations would pose “an extreme visual impact.” But there’s a problem: the town doesn’t have a lot of say. As in the case of all Vermont solar arrays, towns can express their approval or disapproval, but the Public Service Board holds all the cards.
The Vermont Legislature passed a renewable energy bill, H.40, this session, which Gov. Peter Shumlin signed it into law. But the measure did not allay the concerns towns have been expressing for the past couple of years on the lack of control they have over siting arrays and, consequently, the less-than-ideal results from a process that bypasses local zoning.
Vermont League of Cities and Towns Executive Director Steven Jeffrey said town officials had hoped the law would strengthen the position of towns, but said H.40 was “basically just more lip service to the concerns that have been raised.”
In this latest example of towns’ frustrations, the Ferrisburgh selectboard panned three proposed solar arrays all centered around the Route 7-Monkton Road intersection adjacent to the Shaw’s shopping center and the new Dollar General store (see story Page 1). One site would have added to the existing solar array adjacent to the high school athletic fields and extending south along Route 7 on the west side of the highway. Another array would have been opposite that and adjacent to the Dollar General store, also extending to the south, while a third site is proposed just north of the railroad tracks on Route 7 on the east side of the road.
“It’s a lot of parcels in a compact area right on Route 7, very visible to the public and the people that are coming in, the tourists,” said Ferrisburgh selectboard chairman Steve Gutowski, noting the overwhelming impact on that area caused by the arrays.
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Yet, this is the problem coming down the pike, and the magnitude of the problem becomes more obvious as you extrapolate Vermont’s renewable energy goals into the equation.
The state’s goal, as set by Gov. Shumlin, is to be 90 percent renewable energy by 2050. The solar portion of that goal is to generate 6,000 megawatts, or about 2,725 facilities similar in size to the 150kW Cross Pollination solar array located off Route 7 in the New Haven flats. To accomplish that goal, the solar arrays will take up about 45,000 to 50,000 acres of land.
That in itself isn’t bad because Vermont has ample land on which to put that number of arrays. But when solar developers are looking to put the bulk of that growth along major roads because easy access to three-phrase power makes the sites more profitable, then the problem is concentrated into finite strips of land along roadways. It is the strip development of solar energy.
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Like other selectboard leaders, Gutowski makes it clear that the selectboard in Ferrisburgh is in favor of renewable energy and solar arrays. But, he’s opposed to the town’s lack of control for obvious aesthetic reasons. Without more public input, Gutowski says, the towns fear the lack of planning will yield poor results down the road.
The obvious answer is to encourage better screening, setbacks and limited access to scenic highways and other roadways, thus making developers spend slightly more (and make slightly less profit) to locate solar arrays in areas where the aesthetic impact fits within the landscape. If the PSB won’t adopt rules to make that happen, the handwriting is plain: the public will revolt and eventfully force the legislature to impose harsher rules that clamp down on the industry—and that’s no good for anyone.
Hopefully the task force studying this issue over the summer can bring new focus to this issue for passage next year. In the meantime, we can only hope the PSB will take note of the public angst and react accordingly.
Angelo S. Lynn 

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