Weathersfield hoping for planning grant and energy support

Competing with other municipalities for about $200,000 of project funds each year

By JEFF EPSTEIN

vtreporter@eagletimes.com

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WEATHERSFIELD, Vt. — Town planners are advancing a few economic development projects, some in collaboration with the Southern Windsor County Regional Commission (SWCRPC).

One item is an application for a $60,000 grant called Better Connections. The state grant program is for projects that improve local transportation or assist economic development. The grant is funded through the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) and the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) in collaboration with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) and Vermont Department of Health (VDH).

A 10-percent local match is required, and both the Weathersfield select board and the planning commission recently signed off on the application with this provision.

The grant is competitive. According to state information, municipalities compete for about $200,000 of project funds each year.

The Better Connections grant encourages comprehensive solutions that include transportation options, water quality, public health and economic vitality. For Weathersfield, the primary interest is local economic development in Ascutney. SWCRPC would be helping out, according to the planning commission. At a meeting last month, SWCRPC’s Jason Rasmussen said consultants will be hired to work on a budget to boost the economic outlook and growth in Ascutney.

Although not strictly required by the grant program, some transportation aspect is likely to be part of the application. One possibility informally discussed is involvement with an airport. (Hartness State Airport is about 12 miles away from Ascutney.)

Enhanced Energy

On another subject, SWCRPC received state approval last year for its regional energy plan, after a public hearing in September in Weathersfield’s Martin Memorial Hall. Part of the SWCRPC regional plan is the support of municipal energy planning initiatives and educational outreach efforts.

One particular aspect of the regional plan, that aligns with the state energy plan, encourages municipalities to adopt an “enhanced energy plan.”

Such plans are about local efforts to increase the use of renewable energy projects such as solar arrays, woody biomass or other renewable energy sources.

Also, according to SWCRPC documents, an enhanced energy plan is a sort of regulatory shortcut in planning for such projects.

Although the state wants to encourage renewables, the state requires the Public Utilities Commission to sign off on them. The PUC must take a deep look at energy projects, taking into account a town’s overall master plan as well as state plans.

However, if the PUC requirements and preferences are already accounted for in a town enhanced energy plan, then the state would offer “substantial deference” to that plan. In plain terms, it basically means less paperwork for everybody. It may also give a municipality more control. The state is therefore encouraging municipalities to invest the time and planning in developing these enhanced energy plans.

Sven Federow, the town’s land-use administrator, says he likes the idea of an enhanced energy plan, and encouraged the planning commission to go forward with it.

“I would advocate … adopting an enhanced energy plan,” he said, although it is “a relatively new thing.”

Rasmussen has offered to help Weathersfield create an enhanced energy plan. So the town is not actively working on a plan right now, Federow said, but will look at a proposed plan from SWCRPC when its ready.

Meanwhile, the planning commission may include rules for screening solar arrays in its ongoing work to update the zoning bylaw.

The commission has been interested for some time in the subject of solar array views, and the screening of them. The basis is a belief that people do not want to look at solar arrays, and residents near a solar installation may consider them an eyesore.

So the commission has been examining what other towns with solar arrays do. Bennington, for example, has a “Screening of Solar Facilities Ordinance” with “the goal of preserving the scenic quality” of the area. It requires screening of solar projects from surrounding sight lines.

Weathersfield’s planning commission considers similar rules, but has not yet taken formal policy action, except for imposing ad-hoc requirements on individual solar projects that have an application.

Under Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan, the state has a goal of reducing total energy consumption per capita by 15 percent by 2025, and by more than one-third by 2050.

The state plan also requires that at least 25 percent of Vermont’s remaining energy needs come from renewable sources by 2025.

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