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Panton grapples with plan for Vt.’s largest solar field

THIS PANTON FARM field, shown looking south from West Road looking toward Addison, would be part of the 300 acres covered by solar panels if a 50-megawatt solar array proposed by Freepoint Commodities is eventually approved by the Public Utilities Commission. The site lies west of and runs parallel with Route 22A in Panton’s south end. Independent photo/Andy Kirkaldy

PANTON — There is no question about one element of the 50-megawatt solar array that is proposed for land west of Route 22A in Panton. 

At 300 acres, mostly now farmland, it would be big — Vermont’s largest. 

How large is 300 acres? About 227 football fields. 

If a solar array that size was sited in Vergennes it would cover 18% of the city’s surface area. 

It the array is installed South of West Road as proposed by Stamford, Conn., firm Freepoint Commodities LLC, it would spread across 2% of Panton’s land.

The array would be 10 times as big as the 5-megawatt solar array on the north side of Panton Road near Panton Town Hall. 

According to Freepoint’s preliminary map provided in March to the Panton Planning Commission/Development Review Board (DRB), the array would stretch about 4,000 feet south from West Road, which runs from Route 22A west toward the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area. That’s all the way to the Addison town line. 

It would be sited several hundred yards west of and downslope from Route 22A and run parallel to the road, per preliminary mapping. Existing homes, trees and plantings appear to provide some screening from the site. 

Another thing about which there is not much question: Many, but not necessarily all, Panton residents don’t care for Freepoint’s plans. 

According to the New York City PR firm that answered the Independent’s questions on Freepoint’s behalf, those plans include an application to the Vermont Public Utilities Commission (PUC) late this year, construction in 2026, and the array online in 2027.

More than 100 Panton residents as of late last week had signed a petition against that proposal, according to organizers Sharon Ashcraft and Cindy Cooke; they hope to reach 300 signatures in a town with a population of about 700.

The petition claims the array will “degrade the rural character of the area,” “contribute to blight and the loss of farmlands,” “have a disruptive effect on the diverse wildlife species residing in the area,” and be “antithetic to the landscapes that make Vermont special.”

RESIDENTS SPEAK OUT

About 15 residents spoke in opposition at an April 14 planning commission/DRB meeting. According to meeting minutes, Cooke, a West Road resident, said Panton has already done its share for the state’s energy plans by including an Enhanced Energy Plan in its town plan and hosting the 5-megawatt array on Panton Road. 

Resident Charles Strona said he moved to the town decades ago “not to look out his back door and see a field of solar panels,” but “for the rural environment.” He also made a common criticism about the array, that it “Won’t benefit local residents.” It is now unclear where Freepoint would market the power the array could generate.

Resident Bob Moulton chimed in that “people don’t realize the scale of this; 300 acres is too massive for our town.” 

Ashcraft said she moved to Panton “for the scenic beauty and open rural landscape. To destroy that scenic beauty would be a huge tragedy.” 

People who spoke directly to the Independent said they favored solar power, but not this project in this location. 

Sam Marszalkowski is one who opposes the project. She is a Rutland-area resident and a member of the family trust that owns more than 200 acres of the land in question. Her brother Joe Marszalkowski is now farming that 200 acres, part of a larger 1,400-acres operation on which he plants grains.

Members of the family trust are divided on whether to lease the land to Freepoint.

Sam said this is not a “Not In My Back Yard movement strikes again” situation. But she opposes the deal signed by the trust because she believes the land should be farmed, and she shares the opinion of others about the array’s impact on the viewshed and wildlife. 

“I’m not opposed to solar,” she said. “I guess it’s just the scale and the magnitude.”

Panton Planning Chair Mary Rudd summed up.

“I personally have not heard from anyone who favors this,” she said.

Rudd also provided details about what Panton’s Enhanced Energy Plan says, and about how Freepoint’s proposal relates to it.

“It is disappointing to see a company come with a preliminary proposal that is not compliant with the Enhanced Energy Plan. Only about one-third of the proposed array is contained in the area that is permissible,” she wrote in an email. “The Enhanced Energy Plan specifically prohibits installations greater that 500 kW outside of the preferred area.”

Planners, according to April 14 minutes, did not support voting to reopen the town plan to modify the Enhanced Energy Plan, a move that could ease the way for Freepoint’s proposal. The energy plans’ preferred array siting area only includes a portion of the area covered by the proposed array. 

But, regardless of local regulations and input, the state regulator — the Public Utilities Commission — likely has the final say. 

Rudd said the planning commission has scheduled June 13 for a formal vote on whether to reopen the plan. 

Meanwhile, selectboard Chair Howard Hall, who calls himself neutral on the array, said he has heard from residents on the other side of the fence.

“I know some people are very unhappy about it, and I know some people are very happy about it,” Hall said.

What are people who back the prospect telling him? What cropped up was that the array won’t affect supporters directly, and the town could benefit financially from taxing the installation. 

“They think … it’s really not in sight from anywhere that most people live. They don’t see that area between Slang Road and West Road. There’s not much you can really see off Route 22A, that’s what these people are saying. And if it can reduce my taxes somehow, someway, or give some benefits to the town, say a new snowplow, or this or that, it’s the way it is,” Hall said. 

He added, “People also feel it’s beneficial because it is solar power. It is a process that is clean energy. Yes, it’s panels out there, but it’s better than a coal-fired plant or fracking.”

But Hall also said he finds the information provided so far by Freepoint falls short of the mark. 

Hall wants to know more about the array itself and issues such as the arrangements to remove it when it is no longer functional. He also wants details on the transmission line that would bring the power generated to the VELCO substation in Vergennes, and a detailed map of the array showing property lines.

“We’ve only met with these people once, maybe twice, and there’ve been some questions on it. And there’s been some comments from fellow Pantonians on this. And we’re saying we need more information,” Hall said.

Rudd said the planning commission has tried to obtain such information from Freepoint and an affiliated company, SunEast Development LLC, and forwarded specific requests after its April 14 meeting — which was reportedly attended virtually by a Freepoint representative.

“I have not heard anything more from Freepoint or SunEast, and still have not received written answers the questions posed at the April meeting,” Rudd wrote in a May 6 email to the Independent.

FREEPOINT’S POV

Freepoint is a multinational corporation that has offices around the world. It should also be noted that Freepoint has been in trouble with the law.

From a Dec. 14 U.S. Department of Justice press release:

“Freepoint Commodities LLC … has agreed to pay over $98 million to resolve an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department into violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act stemming from the company’s involvement in a corrupt scheme to pay bribes to Brazilian government officials.” 

Freepoint is also proposing 20-megawatt arrays in Shaftsbury and Fair Haven that would also be among the state’s largest. 

The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is currently considering the Shaftsbury proposal, which according to a 2023 VT Digger article sparked opposition. The last recorded action on the Shaftsbury application on the PUC website was a “workshop” scheduled this past September.

There is no PUC application on record for Fair Haven. A 2023 Seven Days article quoted Fair Haven town officials saying, “There’s been no outrage at all,” about Freepoint’s proposal.

The March Panton planning commission minutes said Freepoint did move the array somewhat to partially comply with the town’s energy plan, and the company believes there is onsite screening: “The new location will benefit from extensive natural screening due to its current valley location in and adjacent to Panton’s preferred solar energy development area.”

Freepoint, according to minutes, also represented its intentions “for Freepoint to be the owner of the business and they would be responsible for the aesthetics of the site, landscape, health, and eventual dismantling of the array.”

The Independent contacted Freepoint’s Connecticut headquarters and was told to submit questions to New York public relations firm RFBinder.

RFBinder Senior Managing Director Kelly Logan answered, including with the PUC application and construction and operations timetables. 

Logan was also asked what kind of assurances could Freepoint offer Panton residents that their concerns about viewshed and wildlife protection will be addressed.

She replied: 

“Our most advanced project with respect to PUC review is in Shaftsbury, and their record is very good. Our Shaftsbury project has (a memorandum of understanding) with the Agency for Natural Resources that indicates that we have a common understanding on how to execute the project without any undue impact on wildlife and their habitat … 

“On viewshed, we believe our Panton site is well secluded and will not have an undue aesthetic impact. At Shaftsbury, the state Department of Public Service hired their own consultant to review our landscape plan and their report was very favorable. We expect to meet those standards at all our projects.”

THE GREEN FIELD in front of the trees in the center of this photo and the brown field to its right would be part of the 300 farmed acres covered by solar panels if a 50-megawatt solar array proposed for Panton by Freepoint Commodities is eventually approved by the Public Utilities Commission. The site, part of a farm operated by Joe Marszalkowski, lies west of and runs parallel with Route 22A in the town’s south end.
Independent photo/Andy Kirkaldy

Logan was also asked about the potential destination of the power the array might generate. 

In Logan’s words, “We are looking out of state now, focused on (Connecticut) utilities.”

But an update of H.289, an update to a key Vermont bill on renewable energy, is this week scheduled for its third reading in the Vermont Senate. 

That update would, in part, according to the Vermont Natural Resources Council, “Double the amount of new renewables Vermont utilities are required to build in the state … from 10% to 20% of the electricity they deliver. This is expected to be met mostly with new solar.”

In other words, new demand in Vermont could be created for in-state solar arrays such as those Freepoint is proposing. 

“Yes, it would be great to have a local customer,” Logan wrote in response to a question about H.289.

SOLAR VS. SOY?

As Sam Marszalkowski noted, some wonder why productive farmland is being considered for a change to solar production. Back when the Vorsteveld farm leased land to Green Mountain Power for the array on Panton Road, the farm owners said it was not their most useful acreage. 

But Joe Marszalkowski, Sam’s brother, now farms the 200-plus acres that would be covered by most of the up to 170,000 solar panels that would be installed. 

Doing business as Marszalkowski Grains, his farm also includes about 500 rented acres in Addison as well as 900 total acres on the longtime family farm west of Route 22A. He plants soy, corn, hay and winter wheat, almost exclusively as animal feed. 

Of the 900 Panton acres, Marszalkowski said about 700 is suitable for planting — and the array as proposed would remove from use somewhere between 200 acres and 300 acres of tillable land from use. It would also bisect his land on a north-south axis, reducing efficiency.

Marszalkowski and his sister both disagree with the decision by the family trust to lease the land, a decision they say they were not even aware was happening. The trust, per a document emailed to the Panton selectboard, is intended to benefit the medical and retirement needs of their grandmother, Mary.

Their cousin Alex Marszalkowski operates the trust and wrote that letter to the selectboard urging its support for the array.

In part it states: “Understanding the financial challenges and the urgent need to secure funds for Mary’s care, we explored various avenues and ultimately arrived at the idea of partnering with a reputable solar company to develop a renewable energy project on a portion of our farm. This project will not only provide the financial stability required to cover Mary’s nursing home expenses but also safeguards the future of the Panton farm.”

Alex wrote the solar array would be better for the land: “I believe the development of solar will actually have a positive impact because the fields will no longer be intensively farmed, they will not be plowed every year (allowing them to now act as a carbon sink), they will not be sprayed with hundreds or thousands of gallons of herbicide, pesticide, and tons of chemical fertilizers will also no longer be needed.”

Joe, who took control of farm operations from his father, Richard, this year, took issue with Alex’s claims. He told the Independent he does not use pesticide, and the farm spreads a total of 260 gallons a year of glysophate (which is calls the “safest herbicide”) on the 700 acres of the family farm. He also acknowledged adding another 300 pounds of dry fertilizer —nitrogen, potassium and phosphate — per acre. 

He also rotates crops carefully, and the winter wheat he plants prevents soil erosion. Joe added that solar arrays can leak heavy metal pollutants through damage or defects, and questioned the alleged environmental benefits of the proposed array. 

Joe was asked if he would still be able to operate the farm if the array was installed. Ultimately, his conclusion was not a happy one, due to less volume and similar overhead. 

“That’s a tough question,” he said. “I would like to think so, but I really don’t believe I would.”

But Joe does not oppose solar power, even in the adjacent area identified in Panton’s energy plan that includes some of his land. From behind his barn, he pointed to an area north of West Road and west of Slang Road. If two other farmers agreed, he said, 300 acres could be available there in an area that not only better follows the plan, but is also better shielded by trees. 

One of those other farmers agreed to a power line, but balked at an array, he said, leading Freepoint to turn to his relatives who run the trust. 

“The town had a plan. They would rather have it on Slang Road, pushed farther north. It is a more hidden area from Route 22A,” he said. “There’s a large group of woods east of it, as well as to the north.”

Joe said he understands the NIMBY issue: “If everybody says no, we’re not going to progress,” but that Panton should be “thoughtful on the whole process.”

“I know a lot of people are dead set against it and fighting the whole project,” Joe said. “But you can’t stop the progression, and it is good in a sense. It’s good for the overall economy. But it’s a project that really needs to be looked at in a different angle and planned a whole lot better. And I think unless we act to stop it now, or make changes, or make our voices heard, then I believe we’ll just get run over.”

Author’s note: An earlier version of this story misrepresented one item Joe Marszalkowski told the Independent: He spreads 260 gallons of glysophate on his 700-acres of family farm annually, not 250 pounds of the herbicide. The author apologizes for the confusion. 

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