Weybridge solar plan draws major opposition
WEYBRIDGE — Developers of a 4.99-megawatt solar farm proposal for Weybridge invited neighbors to a Dec. 14 forum to get a sense of how the project might be received.
A vast majority of the 40 townspeople who showed up at the gathering at their local elementary school didn’t mince their words. They don’t want it, fearing that the solar farm — which would be one of the biggest in the state and the first ever pitched in Weybridge — would affect their views and property values.
“I’m not happy about this; I’m not pleased at all,” said Field Days Road resident Dan DaPolito.
“I feel powerless.”
At issue is a proposal by Minnesota-based Ecos Energy LLC to build the solar farm on 73 acres between Quaker Village Road and Field Days Road, in Weybridge and New Haven. Plans call for the arrays to be clustered in two separate, contiguous projects of 2.99 megawatts and 2 megawatts, respectively, both in Weybridge. The arrays would be consolidated on roughly 30 of the total 73 acres, according to Brad Wilson, Ecos Energy project developer.
The property in question has been used for farming and had previously been permitted for an eight-lot housing subdivision, according to Wilson.
Ecos Energy would sell the electricity to Green Mountain Power, taking advantage of some current Vermont programs that allow solar farm developers to be paid a premium for the green energy they produce.
In total, the project would feature around 25,000 panels, mounted on poles driven into the ground. The individual array modules would be 7- to 8-feet tall, which Wilson called “a little on the lower end” for Vermont.
All of the arrays would be located in Weybridge. The New Haven acreage would host a driveway and some underground electrical line, according to Wilson.
Plans call for at least 1,300 feet of buffer between the solar farm and homes off Field Days Road and Quaker Village Road, according to Wilson. The project would patch into electrical lines off Field Days Road and Quaker Village Road. The Quaker Village Road line would have to be upgraded, at the developer’s expense.
If built, the solar farm would generate enough electricity to power more than 830 homes, according to Ecos officials. The solar infrastructure would be subject to local property taxes. A 4.7-megawatt solar array in Panton is yielding around $45,000 annually for that community.
“It is our goal, if this project moves forward, to be a good neighbor,” Wilson told the crowd.
But that will be a tough task, if early feedback from neighbors is any indication.
VIOLATING & FRUSTRATING
Resident Cindy Atkins said folks residing off the Field Days Road and the upper portion of Twitchell Hill Road in New Haven have already faced three solar projects.
“It’s frustrating, and we do feel powerless,” Atkins said. “We have these homes and to have this continually happen around us … We live in a beautiful area of Addison County and the Champlain Valley, and we feel like it’s being taken away from us. You’re going to go back to Minnesota and see the cash flow coming in, and we’re left with the scar on the ground, and it’s generating money for you. I guess I’m finding this kind of violating and frustrating. It doesn’t seem right to me. I have got to be on record as saying I don’t support it.”
As a renewable energy project, the Ecos Energy solar farm would undergo a Section 248 review by the Vermont Public Service Board and thus skirt local permitting hurdles. Wilson said assuming a smooth process with the PSB, the solar farm could be under construction by the spring of 2018.
“The PSB process is a long one, and we are nowhere near ready to begin that process,” he said.
He acknowledged the company would have to receive an additional wetlands-related permit through the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, related to a proposed driveway to the site from Field Days Road. The solar farm itself avoids a nearby Class 2 wetlands, according to Wilson.
Research of the project site has indicated no presence endangered wildlife, Wilson said, though some neighbors disputed that claim. For example, one neighbor pointed to evidence of a bobolink (bird) breeding ground near Field Days Road. Wilson countered the bobolink is listed as a “species of concern,” and not endangered.
Wilson believes that past use of the site for farming, and its potential future as a solar farm, would be less invasive for local animals than a housing development.
But some neighbors noted a solar farm would take out of production at least 30 acres of prime agricultural soil.
“How do you justify using a scarce resource for a project that could be built elsewhere?” one neighbor asked.
The unused portion of the 73-acre parcel could remain in agriculture, Wilson said. And local physician Mike Kiernan, founder of the non-profit venture “bee the change,” has approached Ecos Energy about using the property for planting specific flowers, shrubs and trees that are particularly attractive to bees, hummingbirds and other key pollinators.
The Weybridge Planning Commission is in the process of amending the community’s town plan. And much of that work, according to member Bill Roper, is focusing on the plan’s energy section. The Legislature’s ever-evolving efforts to change Vermont’s solar siting laws is making the planning commission’s energy plan revisions tougher, Roper noted. The Legislature last spring passed a bill that requires the PSB to give due deference to the town plans of communities that have developed solar siting priorities that dovetail with Vermont’s renewable energy goals. But more legislation could be coming down the pike next year that could further change the rules.
Weybridge planners have added language to the energy plan that speaks to the mass, scale, mitigation and aesthetics of solar farm proposals.
“The challenge is, we are in limbo land with renewable energy legislation,” Roper said.
Ecos has already built a 2.2-megawatt solar project in Sudbury, and has additional solar farm plans “in the development phase” in Rutland and Bennington, according to Wilson. The company had been casting about for yet another location, and the Weybridge/New Haven project “jumped out to us,” he said.
Wilson explained the land is attractive for a solar project because it is close to three-phase power infrastructure, has nearby roads for access, and had a bowl-like topography that he said would make the solar arrays less obtrusive to neighbors and passersby.
“The site has limited visibility,” said Wilson, who added landscaping and plantings could further obscure the sight of the solar equipment.
That provided little solace to some neighbors at the public gathering.
“We bought a property 18 years ago, with a beautiful view of the valley, Snake Mountain and the Adirondacks,” DaPolito said. “We bought that property because of the view, and we pay higher taxes because of the view. There is no guarantee taxes will go down because of this (project). I don’t think I would buy this property if there were panels in the valley. I don’t know what the resale of the property would be. I wanted to let you know … that you have one resident here who is not happy at all. I don’t know if there is anything you can do to make me happy about it.”
Some neighbors also voiced concerns about what would happen to the solar farm when it has outlived its usefulness or if Ecos Energy were ever to go bankrupt. Wilson said the PSB would require the company to set up a decommissioning fund to guarantee the farm would ultimately be dismantled.
“This is a business to generate profit, at its core; we want to take very good care of it,” Wilson said.
Wilson declined to share details about Ecos Energy’s financial health or business plan, but he estimated it would cost the company between $7 million and $9 million to build the Weybridge Solar Project.
Resident Barbara Brosnan encouraged local officials to not base the town’s renewable energy future exclusively on solar projects.
“We’d like to ask that we look into other ways that Weybridge can ‘go green’ and benefit from projects,” she said. “This may not be the only way to go. This is new to us, the technology is changing.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]