Ripton town plan addresses solar siting plan

RIPTON — The Ripton Planning Commission is completing a five-year update of the local town plan that among other things proposes a new overlay zone to protect an endangered species of plant, confirms the designation of Old Town Road as a public way and emergency connector in the event of future flooding, and recommends local standards for the siting of future solar projects.
In addition to those stated priorities, Ripton residents will notice the draft 2015 town plan is a robust 68 pages — considerably longer than an expiring town plan of around 40 pages. The document serves as a community blueprint for growth and maintenance of its natural resources for the next five years.
“It is a lot longer than the previous plan,” said Ripton Planning Commission Chairman Warren King. “Substantively, it’s not a whole lot different. It’s got a lot more detail in it. That’s because the Addison County Regional Planning Commission folks advised us to be as specific as we can in our language.”
That added specificity, King said, will offer the community added protection in the state’s Act 250 reviews of projects. Towns that have not built adequate protections in their town plans have had limited tools with which to defend themselves against what they might consider to be undesirable development, he noted.
“You do the best you can,” King said.
Ripton is largely forested and therefore sees relatively few significant building proposals, according to King. The most substantial ones tend to come from Middlebury College, whose local holdings include the nationally renowned Bread Loaf campus. Coincidentally, the latest town plan update reflects a new conservation easement held by the Vermont Land Trust on 1,451 acres of Middlebury College Bread Loaf lands.
“We don’t seem to get much in the way of controversy when it comes to our town plans,” said King, who has served on the planning commission for around 20 years, 10 of them as chairman.
But local leaders are aware of the controversy that proposed solar arrays have generated in other Addison County communities. The Vermont Public Service Board has exclusive permitting authority over such proposals, though the Legislature has given communities permission to establish interim bylaws with minimum setback requirements for solar projects.
Ripton, according to King, is trying to address the issue proactively by endowing its town plan with some solar PV siting standards that call for, among other things:
• A prohibition on ground-mounted solar energy facility on steep slopes with natural (pre-development) grades in excess of 25 percent unless an engineering study is done to show that the installation can be safely and securely supported throughout the expected life of the facility.
• Installation of solar energy facilities within the Historic District of Ripton only if located on an existing structure so as to be out-of-view from Route 125, or, if ground-mounted, screened with coniferous trees 4 inches or more in diameter at the base planted and maintained so as to keep the facility out-of-view from Route 125.
• A solar system collector may be mounted on the rooftop of a conforming structure as long as it does not extend more than 10 feet above the high point of the roofline.
King noted that Ripton is not an ideal community in which to propose a large solar array. In addition to being heavily forested, it is hilly.
“To site a 150 kW solar array is tough business in Ripton,” he said. “There are almost no places it could happen out of site.”
Clear cutting to make space for such a project would probably make the venture cost-prohibitive, he added.
The town plan also proposes a rare species overlay zone encompassing a mile-long stretch along the North Branch of the Middlebury River (and certain tributaries) where there is a confirmed “significant population” of the eastern Jacob’s ladder plant, which has been declared a threatened species in Vermont by the state Agency of Natural Resources.
The Ripton plan also endorses Old Town Road as a public road — and therefore subject to municipal maintenance. The selectboard had previously considered the road — which provides a connection between Route 125 and a class 4 road in Salisbury — as private, according to King.
“The town’s primary interest in the road is as a backup emergency access to the lower parts of Route 125,” King explained.
Ripton sustained major flood damage in 2008 and 2011 as a result of the Middlebury River hopping its banks. The town has been looking for emergency access points in the event that Route 125 is again damaged by flooding.
The planning commission will hold a hearing on the draft town plan at the town clerk’s office at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 15, to accept comments on the document prior to submitted it to the selectboard. The selectboard will convene its own hearing and then decide on its approval.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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