Field Days Road site in New Haven raises key solar issues
NEW HAVEN — About 30 Vermonters paced across a pasture off Field Days Road last Monday, looking at sightlines, scanning for orange flags marking boundaries, and trying from various perspectives to reimagine the 27 acres as the site of a 2.2MW solar development.
In the 16 months since Green Peak Solar LLC filed for permission from the Vermont Public Service Board, the Next Generation Solar Farm project has generated plenty of controversy.
It has been at the center of the Department of Public Service’s decision to change its own processes for generating memorandums of understanding. It has shown how the recommendations of rank-and-file Fish and Wildlife biologists can be at variance with final agreements made by the Agency of Natural Resources. And it shines light on the state’s struggle balancing the critical need for renewable energy to reach its goal of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050 against its desire to preserve agricultural land, open space, important viewsheds and wildlife habitat.
The iconic Field Days setting, with its sweeping vistas, brings these statewide issues sharply into focus.
The three members of the Public Service Board, Chair James Volz, Sarah Hofmann and Margaret Cheney came to the Field Days Road site to see it for themselves before making a decision on the case. PSB hearing officer Michael Tousley visited the site over a year ago and earlier this summer submitted his official recommendation that the project be approved. NEW HAVEN RESIDENT Gary DeVoe points out the sightlines from a field near his home that is being considered for a large solar farm. DeVoe is an intervenor in the case that is currently before the Public Service Board.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Nathaniel Vandal and Chris Cadwell, principals of Waitsfield-based Green Peak Solar, led the assembled group across the field, which is a little less than a mile south of the county fairgrounds. The duo explained to the PSB where the arrays would go and how their maps and simulations aligned with the actual landscape.
Accompanying Vandal and Caldwell were the project’s aesthetics expert and attorney.
Also trudging across the wide, open field were project opponents. This included New Haven Selectman Doug Tolles, the selectboard’s point person on solar issues, town attorney Cindy Hill, the town’s aesthetics expert, and residents concerned about the array.
The project would site 20 acres of panels on a 27.5-acre parcel to be subdivided from a larger parcel of 70.5 acres.
In an emailed response to questions posed by the Independent, Vandal and Cadwell said the Next Generation Solar Farm is “an important project that will provide clean energy for Vermonters and will help meet state renewable energy goals.”
They said the solar energy created on Field Days Road will be distributed to Vermont utilities.
Asked about the importance of responding to global warming, Cadwell wrote, “Our mantra is a Robert Swan Quote: ‘The greatest threat to the planet is the belief that someone else will save it.’”
Vandal and Cadwell believe that the siting of the project will mitigate its effects on the Field Days Road viewshed.
“The setbacks from public roads are some of the largest in the state, with the project located over 750 feet from Field Days Road and a mile from Route 17. The project takes advantage of the sloping topography that shields a majority of (it) from public viewpoints,” they said, in an emailed statement to the Independent.
Anticipating what will happen to the land after the solar arrays become obsolete, Vandal and Cadwell said they have a decommissioning plan and will post a letter of credit to ensure that the project “is removed and soils remediated” at the appropriate time. They also noted that the acreage in question isn’t included in any land preservation program and is not enrolled in the state’s Current Use program.
The developers point to their memorandum of understanding, or MOU, with the Agency of Natural Resources as proof of their commitment to minimize impacts on wildlife habitat. Because the site is prime habitat for bobolinks, they’ve agreed to not build the project between April 15 and Aug. 15 (the bird’s nesting season) and they’ve agreed to restrict mowing and “manage eight acres outside the fence as grassland habitat.”
But many of those trailing the PSB across the site see things differently.
Asked one retired dairy farmer, “Why would they want to put that there in that nice field?” He recalled when that acreage was used to grow trefoil clover. “That was farmed for years. It’s good farm land. Rooftop (solar) is fine; I don’t want to see them turn the meadow into this.”
State Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, had his own questions.
“The town seems to have been the epicenter of proposals,” said Smith, who is a farmer.
“Forty years ago they passed a billboard law to preserve the landscape. As far as I’m concerned, we’re doing just the opposite right now putting all these solar arrays up. It’s a contradiction of terms.”
The town, as represented by the selectboard, opposes the installation for a number of reasons, said Tolles.
“Number one, it’s an industrial use in a residential area,” he said. “Number two is the open question of what happens after 14 years. It’s our belief that after 14 years of industrial use that property becomes industrially zoned in the middle of a residential/ag area.
“Three is that this thing will be visible from (Route) 17 and from Field Days, and we, the selectboard, consider that vista to be very important and worthy of protection. And of course number four, at the time they proposed this we had a town plan that said the limit was 300 kilowatts — this thing is more than seven times that limit.”
Tolles said the town wasn’t opposed to solar that is properly sited. In fact, the selectboard is dicussing a solar park.
“New Haven does have industrial zones. It just doesn’t belong where they want to put it,” he said.
HAVING THEIR VOICE
People who have asked for and been given a voice in the PSB’s consideration of this project are called “intervenors.”
Intervenors interviewed for this article expressed both strong support for renewable energy — rooftop solar, solar on parking lots and other brown spaces, carefully sited town solar parks, geothermal, hydro — and the belief that 20 acres of solar panels off Field Days Road would despoil the landscape.
“You got a commercial business buying that land for next to nothing,” said intervenor Gary DeVoe, who lives nearby. “It’s a huge advantage to them that cheap land.” NEW HAVEN TOWN Attorney Cindy Hill, right, makes a point with Public Service Board members Sarah Hofmann, left, and Margaret Cheney, center, during a visit by the board last Monday to a 27-acre parcel of land along Field Days Road that is being considered for a 2.2 megawatt solar farm.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
“There’s enough technology in the world that they can figure out how to do this and not take away our green space,” said Jill DeVoe. “We can go green but don’t take away the green. Why not on the roof of a parking garage? If you look at cell phones and where they first started and what cell phones are now. We know solar panels are going to be the size of a button one day.”
“It seems that all these developers are rushing to carpet the landscape with these huge arrays” that “may very well be obsolete in five or 10 years,” said Ed Rybka, who lives nearby.
The intervenors have spent, according to their own estimates, hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars participating in the PSB review process.
For Rybka’s partner, Kevin Commins, one of the most disturbing aspects of challenging the proposed development is his experience of “residents being treated like nuisances who can be ignored.”
CHANGING THE PROCESS
According to standard procedure, the Agency of Natural Resources issued its MOU with the developer before intervenor testimony was even due, explained Commins. The Department of Public Service, which is separate from the PSB and is supposed to represent the public, issued its MOU about a month after intervenor testimony was submitted.
But months later at a Jan. 16 hearing, when Rybka asked point blank whether the Department of Public Service had even read the intervenor testimony before issuing its own MOU he got no answer.
That simple question, said Rybka, “ignited a firestorm.”
That exchange has prompted changes in how the DPS, which is charged with being the public’s advocate, has now decided to do business.
A new law created a new group to “review the current processes for citizen participation in Public Service Board proceedings.” When Rybka attended the Aug. 5 meeting of that newly created group, he again described what happened at that January hearing.
“We submitted all of this evidence and we’re very upset that the Department of Public Service ignored it all. As far as we could tell they didn’t read it, didn’t take it at all into consideration,” he said. “My point here is that if you’re going to encourage people to participate in the process there’s no point in participating if their participation is going to be ignored.”
Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia, who is part of the working group, responded by acknowledging that the DPS had made a mistake and explained how the New Haven case had led it to change its processes.
“I just want to acknowledge the issue that occurred,” Recchia said. “The department has implemented a policy now where if there are intervenors in a case we will not enter into an MOU … unless and until we have conversations with the intervenors about what their interests are and decide affirmatively whether to include them or not. I want to acknowledge that I think our entering into an MOU on that case was premature, and it was a mistake that we won’t be repeating.”
Despite these changes in DPS procedure, the DeVoes, Cummins and Rybka expressed low confidence in the Department of Public Service, as far as how their case might influence future cases, and they expressed disappointment that the DPS didn’t throw its MOU out entirely.
The Next Generation case is now in the hands of the Public Service Board who must make their decision.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].