Editorial: Regional planning commission creates valuable template for solar standards

The Addison County Regional Planning Commission recently crafted suggested language for siting and screening standards for solar projects to insert into any community’s town plan. It is stellar work that is worthy as a statewide standard.
 The commission created two draft documents that set the parameters for appropriate siting and screening standards, and couch it in language that the Public Service Board and developers must address.
The benefit is two-fold: it establishes a way for towns to begin a conversation about siting and screening standards of solar projects (if that conversation is not already underway), and it lets developers and the PSB know that those standards must be taken into account when permiting a project. Moreover, the standards are more than reasonable from a developer’s point of view, and go a long way to giving towns and neighbors to such projects protection from negative impacts that the average person would deem unreasonable.
While the documents are suggested guidelines to follow to be in compliance with a community’s town plan, and still don’t have the weight of law (as the PSB still has the ultimate power in these decisions), the documents have the power of common sense guidelines — and could be the basis of amendments to Act 56 (the energy bill passed in the past session) in the coming year.
Highlights of the proposed language are:
• Distinguishing the difference between good siting and poor siting, noting specificially that poor sites have the following characteristics — no natural screening; topography that causes the arrays to be visible agaisnt the skyline from common vantage points; locations that interfere with significant viewsheds; removal of productive farm land; and sites that require public investment in transmission and distribution infrastructure.
• Stating specifically that projects that don’t meet those standards violate the munipality’s town plan: “Projects found to have poor siting characteristics pursuant to the community standards contained (herein), and other poor siting characteristics that a community may clearly define in their plan… violate the municipalities’ standards regarding orderly development.” That’s a good opening paragraph for every town in the county.
• Defining the average person, a standard used in the “Quechee Test,” as being “either the municipal legislative body (selectboard or city council) or the planning commission.”
• Mitigating the impact of the project: the language calls on developers to avoid locating projects above the horizon from public and private vantage points; adhering to minimum setback requirements as set forth in Act 56, but encouraging developers to adopt higher standards that follow setbacks established in municipal zoning regulations; use native plantings that reach a sufficient height within five years; and practicing a “good neighbor policy” in which the siting of an array should presents no greater impact on a neighbor’s property than it does on your own property.
• Decommissioning and restoration: Language suggests all projects provide funds to be propertly decommissioned with the site restored to its natural state at the end of its useful life.
The ACRPC is be lauded for crafting language that is clearly written and hits the critical points that have caused angst within communities since the solar boom started a couple of years ago. Town leaders throughout the county should, at the very least, use the documents as a review of their current siting standards on solar projects, or use it for a template to craft their own. It’s a most useful tool in an era in which the growth of solar projects will continue to increase exponentially year after year.
The draft standards above are a stepping stone to other amendments being discussed by a legislative task force on solar siting that is slated to propose amendments to Act 56 in the spring.
Part of that conversation is discussing whether the current governance structure is appropriate for the hundreds of solar projects being proposed each year. The PSB was conceived to review a few larger power projects that affected the common good of the entire state, not hundreds of backyard power projects that supplied power to a farm, business, home or even a neighborhood. What many have concluded is that the three board members of the PSB are not equipped to handle hundreds of solar projects each year, plus the larger projects that should be their purview.
Giving more power to towns to review these sites makes sense, but the Act 250 process might be so onerous it would kill too many projects and hinder the growth of solar in the state. If town governance is too restrictive and the current governance inadequate, that begs for a new governance structure that falls somewhere between — perhaps through the regional planning commissions, or a new hybrid. It’s an idea that deserves further attention.
Angelo S. Lynn

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