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Planners weigh in on solar guidelines

MIDDLEBURY — As the pace and scale of solar development has accelerated in Addison County, communities have become increasingly concerned about how to regulate development so as to balance the need for renewable energy with the desire to preserve Vermont’s rural, historic and natural landscapes. And the pressure is intensifying as the industry accelerates movement toward Vermont’s goal of getting 90 percent of its energy from renewables by 2050.
“The number of solar installations has just kept growing in the region, and the concern that people have had about their aesthetic impact has been heightened with that growing number,” said Adam Lougee, executive director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission.
In response, the ACRPC is giving towns new tools to address solar development sensibly and be able to weigh in more effectively before the Public Service Board.
The commission last Wednesday approved two short documents that it believes can have a big impact.
The first is a letter the ACRPC will send to any developer who proposes a solar project in Addison County and to the Public Service Board in reference to that developer’s application for a Certificate of Public Good. The letter outlines the county’s goals for balancing the development of renewable energy with the historic character and aesthetic qualities of the region.
The second is a memorandum to all Addison County selectboards and planning commissions that provides language that can go into a town plan, crafted so as to give the community’s vision of its own development greater weight and more efficacy in PSB decisions.
“Renewable energy and our regional aesthetic are both important to us,” said Lougee. “And this is trying to help us hit the renewable goals but do it in a way that’s sensitive to neighbors and citizens and the rural landscape.”
Solar projects 150 kW and larger have proliferated at such a pace that even the regional planning commission doesn’t have a complete list of all solar projects currently installed in Addison County and all currently pending before the PSB.
The largest facilities in operation are the 2.2 megawatt (MW) Cross Pollination solar array off Route 7 north of New Haven Junction, the 2.2. MW Champlain Valley Solar Farm in Middlebury off Route 7 behind the Blue Spruce Motel, and the 2 MW Bridport Solar Holdings off Route 22A in Bridport. Green Mountain Power is now proposing a 5 MW installation in Panton, more than double the size of any current installation.
Beyond these, the county has an abundance of 150 to 500 kW installations. New Haven alone has six solar installations ranging in size from 150 kW to 2.2 MW currently in operation, and eight proposals within that same range currently before the Public Service Board.
The two ACRPC documents were jointly drafted by the commission’s Act 250 and Energy committees, the two committees most concerned with preserving the region’s rural and historic landscape and with furthering Vermont’s ambitious energy goals.
“Both the Energy Committee and the Act 250 Committee felt that it was important for them to weigh in and do it uniformly and get a message out to our towns,” said Lougee.
The letter that will be sent to the Public Service Board and to solar developers with each new proposal clearly states the ACRPC’s criteria for sensible solar development in the region. The letter prioritizes “the aesthetic qualities of both the natural and humanly built landscape,” encourages energy conservation and calls for the development of renewables in ways that preserve that landscape, with its historic mix of villages and rural countryside.
It clarifies that any solar array greater than 125 kW would constitute “significant regional impact” and as such be subject to close review by the ACRPC with regard to aesthetics, viable farmland and wildlife resources. To accomplish these goals, the letter lays out siting criteria and makes clear that “commercial/industrial development such as solar generation is most appropriate within previously identified commercial and industrial zones.” It provides a detailed list of steps that need to be taken for adequate screening and setback, more specific and more stringent than those put into Act 56 (the most recent solar regulation). It emphasizes that all proposals must include a decommissioning plan.
Finally, it stresses the ACRPC’s goal of “preserving critical agricultural soils” and prohibits construction in mapped floodplains, ANR-defined river corridors and class I and II wetlands, and stipulates that impacts on existing wildlife corridors be addressed.
The ACRPC’s letter to area selectboards and planning commissions provides language that the regional planning commission believes will give town plans greater efficacy in PSB deliberations.
“When properly included in a municipal plan and filed as testimony before the PSB,” the letter states, “a well-crafted solar policy supported by specific siting criteria should significantly influence the PSB’s judgment with their obligation to give ‘due consideration’” to municipal and regional plans.
But as the letter makes abundantly clear, specificity is important because the town plan provides the basis for a given municipality’s argument before the PSB. A town plan, for example, that “suggests” a 300 kW limit on solar projects could be construed by the PSB as permissive, with more weight given to “suggests” than to the proposed limit itself as a hard and fast cutoff.
The ACRPC envisions the document as able to provide cut-and-paste language that could be put right into a town plan or could be used as a useful starting point for municipal deliberation. The document focuses on providing language about aesthetic criteria, as natural resources criteria has already been more fully developed. The document lays out community standards for siting and details what makes a poor site or a good one. It helps close the “average person” loophole in Section 248 by defining an “average person” as “either the municipal legislative body or the planning commission.” It carefully lists necessary steps in screening, setback and other aspects of mitigation and calls for a detailed plan for decommissioning and restoration.
A theme repeated among energy experts, planning experts and even state-level officials interviewed for this article is that the Section 248 process — the process by which the Public Service Board awards a renewable energy developer a Certificate of Public Good — was originally developed for a very different model of power generation and distribution than the state sees today with the distributed generation of renewables.
“Section 248 was written when the utility model was big central power plants. It has a statewide focus, a focus on statewide need,” said Geoff Commons, director of Public Advocacy for the Vermont Department of Public Service. “Now we are in a different world. There are power generators in everybody’s neighborhood. So we are experiencing, I think, some growing pains, we the state as a whole, some growing pains around this. And there is some friction that needs to get worked through.”
One planner contrasted the time-tested orderliness of the Act 250 process against the more baffling quasi-judicial nature of the PSB regulatory process.
Whiting ACRPC delegate Ellen Kurrelmeyer, who chairs the Act 250 Committee that cooperatively drafted the two documents and who is also chair of the Whiting selectboard, says the regional planning commission hopes the documents will help towns and will help potential solar developers make proposals that better balance the important drive toward renewables with preserving the landscape.
“We’re hoping that they look at the suggestions we’ve made about how a project should be sited and screening and the way we pay attention to things like wildlife movement and wildlife habitat, that they would use all that information and do the best siting and arrangement so that everyone is happier because the state has said 90 percent, and it’s coming up quick,” said Kurrelmeyer. “We want to meet the state’s renewable energy requirements and feel like we’re not looking at a sea of solar panels.
“We want to be the leaders in renewable energy, but we also want to be known for doing it in a way that keeps the character and the nature of the state the way that everybody who lives here wants it to be.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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