Middlebury considers solar siting in town plan

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury officials now in the process of revising the community’s town plan are considering adding some new language calling upon developers of solar arrays to pay more heed to local concerns prior to siting such projects in Addison County’s shire town.
At issue is a list of eight “consensus principles” drafted by the Middlebury Planning Commission’s solar task force. The task force delivered those principles to the commission on Monday as part of a report on whether Middlebury’s town plan is serving the dual role of promoting responsible solar projects while protecting neighbors who might be concerned about such development.
The task force is suggesting that Middlebury, among other things, could draft a “no surprise rule” urging developers to meet in advance to discuss their solar proposals with local planning officials, and that Middlebury develop lists of appropriate and bad sites in town for hosting solar arrays.
“We feel that if we do it right here in Middlebury, it might serve as a good template for the state of Vermont,” said Solar Siting Committee member Steve Terry.
Solar farm proposals currently do not have to be submitted for local permitting; Vermont’s Public Service Board reviews these projects through the Section 248 process in deciding whether to award such plans a Certificate of Public Good. The General Assembly this past session did pass Act 56, which among other things guarantees municipalities party status in PSB reviews of solar proposals and establishes minimum setback requirements for solar projects, on a statewide basis. Towns like New Haven and Cornwall have already drafted their own solar siting policies based on their priorities and the new protections afforded by Act 56.
Middlebury’s solar task force included local residents Steve Terry, a former GMP executive; state Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, who sits on the House Natural Resources & Energy Committee; and R.J. Adler, Addison County organizer for SunCommon, a solar energy company.
Terry noted Rutland Town officials presented Middlebury with a petition earlier this year that asked the community to join an effort to force changes to Section 248 that would give communities a bigger say over the permitting of solar projects. Middlebury has instead decided to tackle the solar siting issue itself, through recommendations that officials hope will encourage responsibly sited solar projects that could contribute to the town’s goal of increasing its energy self-sufficiency.
Here is the list of eight “consensus principles” that the solar task force presented to the planning commission:
• The “No Surprise Rule.” Developers would be “strongly encouraged” to meet in advance with the planning commission to discuss siting of any small-scale, ground-mounted solar systems. Current state law already requires that towns get 45 days notice for projects larger than 150 kW.
“This advance notice should be viewed as a good neighbor policy with an emphasis on transparency,” the task force’s report states.
• The Town Planning Commission will be encouraged to work with solar and renewable developers, utilities and any other organization promoting solar and renewable developers to help facilitate optimum siting for the community and to reach the town’s goal of energy independence.
• Adopt the setback and screening guidelines set forth in Act 56, which will be applied by the PSB when considering Section 248 permit applications.
• Encourage the PSB to use its “broad discretion” already embodied in state law when it makes permit decisions. This can include urging the parties and nearby neighbors to work with each other to see if there can be dispute resolution and mutual accommodation over siting.
“Vermont is small enough that this extra effort can and should be done in a timely way for all concerned,” the report states. “It is not enough for the PSB to just rely on direction from the Legislature as it already has wide discretionary powers over siting decisions.”
• Encourage the PSB to use its “inherent power of discretion” to consider the views of communities.
• Have the planning commission and the town’s energy committee develop suggested locations within the community that are very suitable for ground-mounted solar development, as well as those sites that are not.
• Encourage the town permitting system to require that all public and commercial buildings be built with roofs to support solar installations.
• Inventory the available flat roofs within the community so that incentives can be offered for solar installations and Middlebury College can be encouraged to join in this effort, which would be compatible with its 2016 carbon neutral pledge that has been reinforced by President Laurie Patton.
Middlebury Planning Commission members applauded the task force’s work, and must now decide whether to embrace any or all of the eight suggestions that have been put forward. It is also unclear whether the commission will try to incorporate task force suggestions in the town plan, local zoning regulations or through a separate document.
“If you go through all these consensus principles, I don’t oppose any of them,” planning commission Chairwoman Nancy Malcolm said.
Former state Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, was pleased to hear the task force’s suggestions. Ralston is the founder and CEO of Middlebury’s Vermont Coffee.
“I think it is great our town is addressing the issue of renewable energy and solar siting,” Ralston said. “Middlebury has always had a strong planning function that has served us well. The prospects of a kind of development that no one even imagined 10 years ago that could potentially overtake the landscape is something that we should be talking about and planning for.”
Ralston said the state should take a more gentle tone in its promotion of renewable energy. State officials have set a goal for Vermont to derive 90 percent of its energy from renewables by 2050.
“I’m absolutely certain that we will never reach the goal of getting the renewables we want if we just cram it down people’s throats,” he said. “That’s not going to be a successful strategy.”
Unbridled development of renewable energy projects, Ralston argued, could mar one of the state’s chief calling cards.
“We have this wonderful quality of life,” he said. “If we lose the quality of life part of Vermont, I don’t know what we are; we are New Hampshire without Boston.”
Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, is chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee. As such, he has been at the forefront of the solar siting debate in the Statehouse. The Independent forwarded Bray a copy of the Middlebury Solar Task Force’s report for his reaction.
“First, I commend the town for undertaking this work, and the task force itself for a thoughtful review that gathers together a number of important documents,” he said. “For those interested in solar siting, it’s essential reading.”
A copy of the full task force report can be found as an attachment at the bottom of this story.
“I agree with all eight principles offered, especially those that are oriented to early communication between parties,” he added. “The earlier such communications occur, the better.”
Bray noted the creation last spring, through Act 56, of a state-level “Solar Siting Task Force” charged with delivering draft legislation to the General Assembly this coming January. The panel’s charge includes “to study the design, siting, and regulatory review of solar electric generation facilities and to provide a report in the form of proposed legislation with the rational for each proposal.”
“I have already had a bill drafted into which those recommendations can be received, discussed and further developed by the Senate and House,” Bray said. “I am confident we will make further progress toward a clean energy future that respects local interests, and I am looking forward to the coming legislative session and the work ahead.”
In the meantime, Bray said towns like Middlebury, New Haven and Cornwall deserve credit for acting proactively on solar siting during this transition to a better state review process.
Bray said he believes that “Vermonters strongly support the move to a clean energy future.” So the question, he said “is not if we should make the transition, but how to do it well. We are on the right track in general, and we also know we can do better.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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