Cornwall wrestles with solar proposal, town meeting set to discuss policy

CORNWALL — The Cornwall selectboard will hold a special town meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 11, to get residents’ feedback on a hotly debated solar project being pitched off West Street and to weigh in on the broader topic of how the community should entertain future solar proposals.
Around 15 local residents turned out at a July 7 Cornwall selectboard meeting to learn about a 150kW solar array that the SunCommon company is seeking to build on a portion of the Stephen Payne property at 2838 West St. The project would feature 660 solar panels serving around 30 families through the company’s “Community Solar” program, according to R.J. Adler, coordinator of SunCommon’s Addison County projects.
The power would be measured through a meter as it flows back out to the state’s utility grid. Green Mountain Power would buy the power, and in return give SunCommon solar credits that can be used by the 30 families participating in the Community Solar project to reduce or eliminate their respective utility bills, according to Adler. Each credit is worth a dollar, but SunCommon sells it for 93 cents, ensuring a 7-percent savings on electric bills regardless of the fluctuation of electric rate, Adler said.
“Since it’s not wires but the utility’s billing system that connects you to the Community Solar Array, members can live anywhere within the same utility as the solar” array, reads a SunCommon flier explaining the program. SunCommon would pay for installation, maintenance and eventual removal of the array, thanks in part to funding from investors, Adler said.
Cornwall residents would be given first dibs on joining the proposed Community Solar project on West Street, according to Adler.
It was Stephen Payne who approached SunCommon this past spring about the prospect of hosting a solar array on roughly one acre of his property located in Cornwall’s low-density residential/agricultural zone, according to Adler. SunCommon officials inspected the property and determined it to be a good candidate for hosting a solar array. The company is preparing an application to the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) for the Certificate of Public Good it would need through the state’s section 248 process to proceed with the West Street project. It is a utility project that would not be subject to local permitting or zoning, to the chagrin of local officials who believe such proposals should also be vetted locally.
SunCommon officials said they’d like to see the project completed by this November.
Adler acknowledged the fact that local permitting would not be required, but said SunCommon is nonetheless seeking input from project abutters, town officials and community members. He said that input would be used to mitigate the visual impact of the proposed array at 2838 West St., through such measures as landscaping and siting it in a manner that would take advantage of the parcel’s sunken topography.
“We are open to changes,” Adler said.
And it’s clear that some Cornwall residents — particularly abutters — will be seeking some changes to the West Street project, or suggest that it not be built at all.
Among those most concerned about the proposed array are Daniel Cooperrider and Elizabeth Searcy, who reside next door at 2919 West St. In a letter to the selectboard, the couple said the array, as proposed, would obscure the primary view from their home.
“This small house was designed specifically with two large bay windows on the south side to orient the interior of the house toward the south and west,” they said. “If this proposal goes through, the view-field that this house was designed for will become entirely taken over by the solar panel and fence, etc.”
They also said the proposed array could set a precedent for future large-scale renewable energy projects in Cornwall, might negatively affect property values, and could have a negative effect on the flora and fauna in the area. They urged SunCommon to consider re-orienting the project in a more horizontal manner and closer to West Street, as opposed to up against their property line.
Kate Gieges, another West Street resident, also voiced her opposition to the plan.
“My reactionary theory says I don’t want screening; I don’t want to see it at all,” Gieges said. “I walk by there. It’s an open field.
“What you are planting for screening takes time to grow,” Gieges added. “I think globally, in Vermont, we are ruining our landscape with it.”
Barney Hodges III is co-owner of Sunrise Orchards in Cornwall. He told the selectboard that he, too, is considering installing an array on his property. But he said he is weighing a lot of different factors in deciding whether to proceed. Some of the issues, he said, include property rights; whether land should be taken out of agriculture in order to host solar panels; and whether the town would be best served by establishing a policy or position on solar siting.
“I think the PSB is becoming more and more sensitive to the issues of how it is affecting Vermonters’ perception of the landscape,” Hodges said. “I think it is really important for us as a community to decide how to support this, or not.
“There are lots of potential sites in Cornwall, and (solar) can be done in a very intelligent way,” he added.
Cornwall Selectman Dave Sears was candid in his appraisal of the project and his displeasure with the section 248 review process.
“The biggest concern I have is New Haven, Vergennes and some of these other places where you drive down Route 7 and there isn’t a whole heck of a lot of screening,” he said. “It’s just flat-out way too obvious. Granted, West Street is not Route 125, Route 74 or Route 30, but I just worry what road we head down if everyone starts doing it.”
Sears added he is “sad that the town doesn’t have more say” in the review of solar projects, and that projects sited right next to a road “for me, just don’t work.”
“I am for renewable energy, but placed in a better location, like around 200 or 300 feet off a road — not 50 feet off the road from a pristine view,” Sears continued. “I don’t think you can spend enough money, with this open view, to put in enough screening so people can’t see (the proposed West Street array).”
Adler said SunCommon is trying to site its arrays ”in the best way possible” and added his company has a “triple bottom line: People, planet and profit. Yes, as a company we want to turn a profit to keep ourselves in business, but we want to make sure that every decision we make works for the people working in, with and for the company.”
SunCommon, according to Adler, has cancelled projects in some cases in which the host community has exhibited fervent opposition.
“The fact that we are having a conversation here I believe says a lot about who we are,” said Adler, who added the single-phase electrical line on West Street would preclude any additional large-scale solar projects in the area, unless the line was upgraded.
West Street resident Will Amidon also weighed in on the proposed array. He said he supports solar energy but questioned SunCommon’s selection of the West Street parcel.
“I love living on West Street,” Amidon said. “I love to see the fog in the Lemon Fair Valley, I love seeing the Adirondacks. It breaks my heart that a corporation, real estate developers, are coming here to this place I love and are going to take a little piece of it. And that’s, I think, the reaction I find from a lot of people.”
Residents will have another opportunity to weigh in on the West Street solar proposal, and discuss solar siting in a more global sense, at the special town meeting on Aug. 11. The selectboard has yet to set a time and location for the meeting.
For its part, SunCommon will not file its application with the PSB until after that Aug. 11 meeting, according to Adler.
“In some towns there’s a lot of input on solar siting, and in some towns there’s not,” Adler said after last week’s meeting with the selectboard. “The message last night from Cornwall was they want to have more input with more time to think about this solar array. We understand and honor that and will attend the town’s Aug. 11 meeting to take their questions. We will submit the application for a CPG on the project at the Paynes’ property after that meeting.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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