Solar project to face more town scrutiny
We agree that the climate crisis is alarming, it’s urgent and astonishing and we have to move rapidly … I think we should be considering this project. I’m sorry, I think we should; I think we need it.
— Selectwoman Laura Asermily
MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard wants the local planning commission to review a 5-Megawatt solar array that’s being planned for Middlebury College-owned land off South Street Extension. The plan has generated widespread criticism from neighbors and more than a dozen people who said they regularly walk, jog and bike near the proposed site, located near the Eddy Farm for Horse & Rider.
A planning commission review of the solar farm — to be owned and maintained by Encore Renewable Energy — is expected to give the selectboard more insight into a plan on which they will invite public comment before year’s-end. The combined feedback from town officials and area residents will be considered by the Vermont Public Utilities Commission, which is being asked to approve a solar farm that would be as large as any thus far built in the state.
As an energy-generating project, the solar farm doesn’t have to go through local or Act 250 land development reviews.
Middlebury selectboard members on Nov. 12 heard details about the plan from Encore Chief Development Officer Derek Moretz. The meeting drew around 20 area residents with strong feelings about the project. Selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter asked residents to save their comments until an upcoming public meeting on the subject.
Power generated by the arrays will be funneled into the Green Mountain Power electrical grid and credited for use by the college. College officials said the project is in keeping with its “Energy 2028” initiative, built on four primary commitments: Transitioning to 100-percent renewable energy sources to power and heat the institution’s main campus, reducing energy consumption at the core campus by 25 percent by 2028, expanding educational opportunities for students to make a direct impact on the college’s renewable energy priorities, and reducing fossil fuel investments currently reflected in the college’s endowment fund.
While the college could purchase carbon offsets from projects outside of Middlebury, officials said the institution is committed to finding a solution near its campus on land it owns.
Project planners initially looked at creative ways to site the solar panels on campus, according to Moretz.
“The project has looked at a number of project sites… that included rooftops, parking lots, brownfields and the like around campus,” Moretz said. “But they quickly realized that they were not going to achieve the scale in the 2028 vision from these smaller sites.”
So the search expanded to eight potential locations near the campus. Four of those sites were off South Street Extension. The other four were off Route 125, James Road, Route 7 and on land in Middlebury’s industrial park. All of the sites explored are under the college’s control.
Encore narrowed the list to two sites off South Street Extension. Last spring, it chose a site upland and to the west of the current preferred site. But the company later nixed that site largely because of large quantities or ledge found there. So they shifted it east to the current location, which neighbors contend would spoil one of the best views in town.
Moretz disagreed, saying the current site doesn’t affect the skyline and would be screened.
“We came to the conclusion that this lowland site is the least-impact alternative,” Moretz countered.
Selectman Nick Artim joined South Street residents in asking Encore why the solar farm couldn’t instead be tucked away in the industrial park site.
“There are a number of reasons that would prevent the project from achieving the scale to reach the college’s goal,” Moretz replied. “There are some subdivision issues that would need to be ironed out. Ultimately, when we look at the town plan and look at the function of that industrial district with some of the infrastructure that’s available there, it didn’t seem to be the highest and best use of the property as referenced in the town plan — which is to promote manufacturing and job creation.”
Moretz underscored the difficulties of siting a large solar project.
“There are certain things we can do to mitigate the project, but ultimately… folks want clean power, but not in their backyard,” Moretz said. “This project is an attempt to strike a balance between finding a site within the town limits that’s proximal to where the power is being used, where there is existing infrastructure and space that could be mitigated from nearby abutters. That’s our goal — to continue this process and do anything we can to demonstrate this is a responsible location that can be effectively screened from some of those aesthetic impacts.”
Selectwoman Laura Asermily said she sympathized with South Street residents’ concerns, but stressed the need for green energy to combat climate change.
“We agree that the climate crisis is alarming, it’s urgent and astonishing and we have to move rapidly,” she said. “I have to weigh that too. Do we just live with the aesthetics of this, because we need it all, now? It’s that urgent; it’s that dire. We have to have it. I have to say, I know a lot of you South Street residents are here, I see solar arrays and I feel good about that. I’ve gotten accustomed to seeing even large ones. I think it actually protects the land for agricultural use. I think we should be considering this project. I’m sorry, I think we should; I think we need it.”
The Middlebury Conservation Commission has already weighed in on the solar project, and has not given it a passing grade, according to statement the panel released on Nov. 11.
“While we appreciate the college’s motivation to transition to renewable sources of energy, the commission has a number of concerns with the currently selected site for this project,” the statement reads. “We recommend that the town and college work together to identify alternative sites that include the town’s industrial land use district and existing parking lots or building rooftops on the Middlebury campus. We advise that the currently proposed site has high value to the town community as a landscape for agriculture, natural communities, recreation, and scenic views, and we are concerned that the development of the proposed site would continue a trend of piecemeal development of this region that is in conflict with these values. If the college determines to proceed with this project, we recommend several mitigation strategies to reduce but not remove impacts.”
All eyes will now turn to the planning commission, which a few years ago developed what Selectman Carpenter described as some “consensus principles” on solar siting within town.
“Given (the commission) is our lead on that, we’d like to see (the project) go through the process of going to the planning commission,” Carpenter said. “The planning commission can look at it in regard to how it fits the principles.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
This past Thanksgiving, Nov. 23, saw almost 60 people converge upon the 1,400-square-foot … (read more)
Two state lawmakers are urging Addison County folks not to ease up on efforts to battle cl … (read more)