BENNINGTON >> The Select Board voted unanimously Monday to pass a screening ordinance for ground-mounted solar facilities.
In Bennington, ordinances take effect 60 days after being passed, allowing time for appeal.
The ordinance, "Article 28. Screening of Solar Facilities," allows the board to make screening recommendations to the state Public Service Board on ground-mounted solar facilities. The recommendations cannot be stricter than current zoning laws for commercial projects. It allows the board to seek recommendations from another body, such as the Planning Commission, but does not require it.
In Vermont, power plants, such as solar facilities, are regulated by the Public Service Board. The PSB's process trumps all local zoning bylaws. This has led to no small amount of consternation in the public concerning proposed solar, wind, and biomass projects.
Municipal governments are warned of these applications and given an opportunity to seek legal status in the proceedings. Towns have always had the option of offering recommendations on projects, but the PSB was under no obligation to impose them.
That was until this year when the legislature passed a law allowing towns to create solar screening ordinances.
Now, if the town's recommendations follow the law, meaning they don't effectively ban solar facilities and are not stricter than what would be required of any other commercial facility, the PSB is bound to impose them. Municipalities are also granted automatic party status, whereas before it had to be specifically requested.
Bennington's ordinance will not apply to the two projects that arguably spurred the Select Board to create it.
The board began talking about the ordinance in late summer, after residents opposed to the Chelsea Hill and Apple Hill solar projects got the board's attention regarding the scope of the proposals.
The projects, while legally separate, are backed by the same developer and will be adjacent to one another on a 27-acre plot of land east of the Bennington Welcome Center near the Apple Hill neighborhood. They were proposed in 2014, but the town did not seek party status until a few months ago.
Residents and other community members have taken issue with how much land will be cleared to make way for them. They are also concerned about the visual impacts and say the developer, Allco Renewable Energy Limited, has not proposed enough screening, which Allco denies.
The Select Board has subsequently sought and gained party status and asked the PSB to deny a permit for both projects.