Is The Selectboard Dropping The Ball On The Solar Farm Proposal?

Action item for April 25 Selectboard meeting

The Selectboard could do more in its consideration of the 3.5 acre solar farm proposed by the applicant Norwich Technologies for Fire District land. See: 3.5 Acre Solar Farm Proposed For Fire District LandFurther discussion is slated for the April 25 Selectboard meeting. 

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The Selectboard has a golden opportunity to exert a modicum of local control over the project. Yet, the Selectboard has hardly reviewed the proposal. Why not? This project is large for Norwich — occupying 3.5 acres and consisting of more than 2000 individual solar panels.
Of course, everybody loves solar! That may be, but the devil is in the details. The PUC process, however thorough, is not local. 

My concern is that the solar farm becomes an eyesore in 10, 20 or 30 years, because (a) the project is not kept up and deteriorates over time or (b) it is not dismantled at the end of its useful life.  I will have a future post on the topic. 

There are two avenues for the Selectboard to exercise local control. One is in the designation of the Fire District land as a Preferred Site. This was the Selectboard's focus last meeting. The other, pretty much ignored, relates to the ‘comment period’ provided by PUC Rule 5.100

Let’s start with Selectboard review regarding Preferred Site status. Without such designation, this project simply cannot go forward. Nothing prevents the Selectboard from imposing conditions in connection with such a designation. 

There are no rules or guidelines governing the Selectboard decision. It is a Preferred Site, if the Selectboard says so.* This gives the Selectboard an opportunity to speak for the community and for residents living near the site.

Indeed, Selectboard Chair John Pepper waxed eloquent, in talking about small town values and the need for Norwich Technologies to proactively get input from adjoining landowners. That struck me as a very doable request. Still, Mr. Pepper voted to grant Preferred Site status. The vote failed because other Selectboard members wanted more public input.† We will learn Wednesday if abutters were heard by the applicant. 

The Energy Committee makes a valid point that the Fire District land is designated as a Preferred Site under the proposed Town Plan. However, will its Preferred Site status become an issue in further discussions on the Town Plan? A second public hearing on the Town Plan is required but not yet scheduled by the Selectboard. 

I think it makes sense to give any request for Preferred Site status individual review. However, when getting a request, the first order of business should be for the Selectboard to decide procedures.  After all, such designation is akin to spot zoning.  One prerequisite might be having the applicant to affirmatively reach out to abutters and nearby residents. 

With respect to the ‘comment period’ under the PUC Rule 5.100, that provision is not getting the attention it deserves. Under the Rule, the Selectboard (as well as the Planning Commission and adjoining landowners) can comment on a solar project proposal. More important, the applicant, here Norwich Technologies, must specifically address each comment, in its PUC petition for a certificate of public good.** If an applicant cannot resolve an issue, then it must explain why. This strikes me as an excellent opportunity for the Selectboard (as well as adjoining landowners and the Planning Commission) to raise concerns, without needing to fumble through the PUC process or to hire a lawyer to represent their interests.††   

Source: April 11 Selectboard packet. 

As noted, a future blog post will cover my concern that the solar farm becomes an eyesore in 10, 20 or 30 years. There may be other issues of importance to the community and to residents living near the site. If you have one, plan on attending the Selectboard meeting on April 25.

*   There are nine definitions of a Preferred Site under section 5.103 of PUC Rule 5.100. However, the definition relevant here is section 5.103 (7) - a “specific location designated in a [Town Plan] ... or a specific location that is identified in a joint letter of support from the” Selectboard, Planning Commission and regional planning commission.

†   Reading the Selectboard agenda, a resident would be hard pressed to know a solar farm of this size was an action item. The agenda reference for the April 25, 2018 meeting is item at 8) b) is “Preferred Site Issue”. 

**  Section 5.107(C)(11) of PUC Rule 5.100 [page 26] states: 
Responses to comments received in response to 45-day advance submission. The applicant must file a document summarizing the comments and recommendations received in response to the 45-day notice. The document must respond to the issues raised in those comments and recommendations and must state what steps the applicant has taken to address those issues or why the applicant is unable to do so.

††  At a minimum, the Zoning Administrator could be tasked to review the project under Article III of the Norwich Zoning Regulations, which covers such items as setbacks, signage, and lighting.  Every development in Norwich is required to meet these rules. Why not a large solar farm? Most zoning rules do not apply per se, but the Selectboard can comment and get a required response. By statute, however, the screening requirements of local zoning regulation apply 30 V.S.A. § 248(b)(1)(B). Also, it might make sense for the fire chief to review the plan in terms of safety and emergency response.

Posted: 04.20.2018. 

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