Beauty or blight? Middlebury solar farm plan draws mixed reactions

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard’s March 27 public hearing on a proposed 4.99-megawatt solar farm off Halladay Road provided further evidence that when it comes to solar panels, the words “beauty” and “blight’ can be used to describe the same thing.
It all depends on whose eyes and which property lines are involved.
“I find virtually all renewable energy projects to be beautiful,” Middlebury resident Steve Maier said during his testimony. “I find the visual representation of turning sunlight into power to be beautiful.”
“I think in our headlong rush to meet state (renewable energy) goals by 2025, we’re going to regret what we’re doing to the land,” Halladay Road resident Lou Varricchio countered. “I don’t see solar panels — acres and acres of them — any different than I do advertising billboards.”
Maier, a former state representative, and Varricchio were among a handful of local residents who weighed in on the groSolar proposal, which calls for solar panels to cover approximately 40 acres of a 112-acre parcel the company wants to buy from the estate of Ruth Quesnel. The parcel is located at the corner of Old Middle Road and Halladay Road. GroSolar officials picked the land in part because its topography — and suggested landscaping — would hide the solar farm from virtually all Halladay Road residents and people traveling by on Route 7 South.
Middlebury and groSolar officials are discussing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that details how the company could install and maintain the project in a manner that would ensure town support for the solar farm application as it winds its way through the state’s approval process. The groSolar project won’t require a local permit but will need a Certificate of Public Good from the Vermont Public Utility Commission in order to proceed. Still, the state’s renewable energy regulators are increasingly factoring in local support for solar projects prior to awarding them Certificates of Public Good. A memo of agreement between the town of Middlebury and groSolar would enhance the Halladay Road project’s changes of becoming a reality.
The March 27 public hearing gave Middlebury residents a chance to react to the proposal and a draft MOU that, among other things, would require groSolar to maintain the access road leading to the site, provide training to local firefighters in responding to potential emergencies, and plant flowers and shrubs that would attract pollinators to the property.
The MOU would also ensure groSolar pays the town at least $40,000 in municipal taxes each year.
Residents offered a variety of takes on the project, with some urging the selectboard to extract the best possible deal from groSolar.
“This kind of space is really valuable; we might need it ourselves,” Middlebury Energy Committee Chairman Ross Conrad said. “Negotiate hard and get a good deal. Ask for more than what they’re offering if you think this project should go forward.”
The Middlebury Energy Committee on March 21 reviewed the groSolar proposal and has recommended the selectboard negotiate additional benefits for the town, including:
•  A request that groSolar give the town and its citizens preferred access and rates in future net metering energy projects it pitches.
•  That groSolar assist Middlebury in designing and implementing its own municipal solar array.
•  That groSolar agree to have a “certain number” of its renewable energy credits retired in the state of Vermont. As it stands, out-of-state entities can purchase renewable energy credits through Vermont solar projects and have those count toward their respective carbon reduction goals.
“We’ve got to recognize that to meet our needs, we can’t use up all our land supplying renewable energy for places outside of Vermont,” Conrad said. “This is a big project, and there are not a lot of really good spaces in Middlebury for something like this. This might be the best spot for this kind of project, if it’s going to be approved.”
Some Halladay Road residents aren’t keen on seeing the solar farm come to fruition.
“I’m more interested in a pastoral-type view when I go up and down the (Route 7) corridor,” resident Bob Champlin said. “The project is just very large and out of scale. Middlebury should look at smaller projects. Perhaps we should let other towns do some of this rather than us do such a very large project.
“It’s a mistake to put such a large solar project up in that area,” he added.
Though he described himself as a fan of renewable energy, Varricchio lamented the use of farmland and scenic views for solar arrays.
“The problem with decentralizing our energy sources is, it’s going into everybody’s back yard in Vermont,” Varricchio said.  “When (the state) had a nuclear power plant that was providing a large amount of electricity … it was concentrated on a few acres in Vernon.”
He’s concerned the groSolar project could reduce property values for Halladay Road residents.
“This is a big project,” Varricchio said. “If you have a house very close to one of these large-scale solar projects, you can face a depreciation of about 40 percent in your property value. I would be concerned if I had one of these things in my backyard.”
But others embraced the idea, including Halladay Road resident Ed Sommers.
“We’re all for it, my wife and I,” Sommers said. “We know the site. It’s a very isolated site. We can’t see it.
“I think the siting is fine, the project is wonderful and I’m happy we’re considering participating in this (solar) revolution,” he added.
Charlie Kireker, co-developer of the South Ridge Neighborhood off Middle Road, also applauded the plan.
“This is precisely the type of thing a forward-thinking town like Middlebury should be embracing,” Kireker said. “I salute the town for pursuing this and the developer for bringing it forward.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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