Proposal for Brandon solar array criticized; visibility, use of farm land draw fire

BRANDON — A proposed 25-acre solar project just a mile outside downtown Brandon has raised concerns of residents and town officials alike.
The project is planned for two, 12.5-acre parcels at the intersection of Country Club Road and Park Street Extension. The land in question, owned by Bob Brooks, is agricultural and has been used to grow corn for decades.
Conti Solar, an Edison, N.J.-based solar company, is proposing the 2.2-megawatt project, which will produce enough electricity to power 500 homes.
Conti Solar Vice President Eric Millard appeared with his team before the Brandon selectboard March 12 to outline the project.
“The reason why we’re here is that it’s important to us to solicit opinions and advice from the public,” Millard said. “We’re not trying to be controversial or adversarial.”
But the project was not received well. Unlike a number of other solar arrays approved in and around Brandon, the Conti Solar project, dubbed “Babcock Solar,” is planned for a parcel of land near the downtown used by walkers, runners and cyclists, surrounded by residential development and in clear view of the two different roads and abutting property owners.
There were also nine local residents in attendance, including abutting landowners concerned about the proposal. Among them was Bob Clark, whose house sits above the land in question and who will have a bird’s eye view of the 25-acre solar array.
“We would be impacted visually and from our window, we can see walkers, bikers, joggers and tourists coming up and down the road,” he told the board. “I think this would impact their experience as well. It seems like just too much for this semi-residential, agricultural area and I hope it doesn’t get approved, to be honest with you.”
Selectboard Vice-Chair Doug Bailey agreed.
“Vermont has become a kind of tourist state,” he said, “and I’ve never had a tourist come up to me and say how much they like those solar panels. I have to think there are better places for these things other than this close to people’s homes and the center of town. We’ve been presented with numerous solar sites but not at a location as viewable as this one. As much as I support a landowner being able to do what they want with their land, I don’t want Brandon to turn into one of those towns to the north.”
Bailey was alluding to very large, viewable solar arrays located along Route 7 in New Haven, Ferrisburgh and other towns north of Brandon.
The Conti project includes an impressive landscaping plan designed to screen the array from view, although it would take three to five years for the screening to mature enough to do its job. Conti hired landscape architect and Brandon resident Natalie Steen to design the screening plan.
Selectmen Tracy Wyman and Devon Fuller both said they liked the screening plan, but it’s the location that has them concerned.
“The problem I have with this project is what everyone else has said,” Fuller said. “I love the screening, but in our town plan it talks about not using agricultural fields or greenways and not locating these arrays in developed areas where there are homes and pedestrians, and this has a few of these those problems. I wish you could find a spot that was more hidden.”
Indeed, the town plan is in the process of being revised to include that language regarding solar projects in Brandon. Selectboard Chair Seth Hopkins asked Brandon Planning Commission Chair Stephanie Jerome, who was present at the meeting, for the planning commission’s guidance on the matter.
“The planning commission’s feeling was that with this project taking up agricultural land and being viewable from the road and area homes, we’re concerned,” Jerome said.
The project would not require a local Development Review Board permit, but does require a Certificate of Public Good from the state Public Utility Commission, which regulates all energy-generating projects in Vermont.
The economic benefits to the town of the Conti Solar project would include roughly $6,400 a year in municipal taxes, and $8,800 a year in school taxes. That did not seem worth it to many of the people present at Monday’s meeting.
“You’re talking about $6,400 a year to ruin our pretty little town,” Ettie Spezzano said. “To me, it’s really not worth it.”
The board agreed that, once Conti files its 45-day notice of its intent to seek a Certificate of Public Good, the town should apply for party status in the proceedings.
As the comments wrapped up, Spezzano summed up her feelings about the project.
“You’re going to go back to New Jersey and you won’t have to look at those solar panels,” she said. “I moved from New Jersey to Vermont get away from this.”

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