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Municipal advocate says changes to solar siting law aren’t enough

MONTPELIER — Revisions passed this spring to the Vermont law governing renewable energy generation in the state included some changes in the process used to site solar arrays in Vermont towns, including establishing statewide setback requirements, allowing towns to insist that local landscape screening laws apply, and creating a task force to evaluate the process.
But Vermont League of Cities and Towns Executive Director Steven Jeffrey said towns that have been confronted with siting of multiple solar arrays remain unsatisfied with the limited amount of control over placement and design offered by the new provisions.
Jeffrey said VLCT and town officials had hoped for something that would “ramp up the status of local plans and bylaws in their decision-making” at the Public Service Board (PSB), which retains the power to approve solar arrays by issuing Certificates of Public Good.
“This is basically just more lip service to the concerns that have been raised,” Jeffrey said.
The changes to the law (H.40) require solar arrays that generate more than 150 kilowatts to be set back at least 100 feet from roads and 50 feet from property boundaries, and arrays that generate between 15 and 150kw to be built at least 40 feet from a road and 25 feet from a property line.
The PSB may allow smaller or larger setbacks if property owners, applicants and towns all agree.
The law also requires the PSB to find that an array “will not unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region with due consideration having been given to the recommendations of the municipal and regional planning commissions (and) the recommendations of the municipal legislative bodies.”
However, the law also states that if the PSB finds that complying “with the screening requirements of a municipal bylaw … and the recommendation of a municipality applying such a bylaw,” would prevent the project, it could over-rule the screening requirement.
The law also states that screening, “shall not be more restrictive than screening requirements applied to commercial development in the municipality.”
The task force created by the law will consist of the Public Service and Housing and Community Development commissioners, or designees; the Secretary of Natural Resources or designee; representatives of the VLCT, Vermont Planners Association, Vermont Association of Planning and Development Agencies, Renewable Energy Vermont and Vermont System Planning Committee; a landscape architect; and a qualified Vermont resident.  
The group will be charged with studying “the design, siting, and regulatory review of solar electric generation facilities” and providing “a report in the form of proposed legislation” to the Secretary of Natural Resources.
Ultimately, Jeffrey said the best solution would be simple, but probably not feasible.
“What we would have preferred is probably outside the range of political possibilities. But that would be that they would be subject to local zoning,” Jeffrey said.
He said he does not understand why solar arrays cannot be included in another category of necessary public improvements that already hold a special place in state law.
Jeffrey noted that town zoning can only do so much to regulate many municipal and public structures — a list that includes state and town buildings, hospitals, schools, churches and solid waste facilities.
“How we are allowing for the generation of power for who-knows-who to be less restrictively regulated by the local towns? It’s an issue for us, certainly,” he said.
Jeffrey also sounded skeptical that a task force would create a better result.
“I guess we can always be hopeful,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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