Bennington solar project opponents critical of board vote

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BENNINGTON — Opponents of two solar energy projects eyed for the Apple Hill area said they see both good and bad in a Select Board vote to drop opposition to one project while continuing to oppose the other.

The board, acting on the advice of town attorney Rob Woolmington, voted Monday to no longer oppose the developer's Apple Hill Solar project based on nonconformity with the town plan, but to continue to oppose the similar Chelsea Hill Solar plan in court.

"I see at least a half win here," said Libby Harris, an abutter to the project sites and an intervenor in the permitting process for Ecos Energy's side-by-side solar projects.

But Harris said Tuesday she doesn't plan to drop her own opposition to either project.

The Apple Hill Solar plan is before the Public Utility Commission seeking certificate of public good approval, while the Chelsea plan was rejected by the commission in 2016 and now is being appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court by the company.

The town is an intervenor in permitting for both projects. It will continue to monitor the Apple Hill Solar process before the commission and could propose further conditions, according to the attorney's recommendation, but won't oppose the project based on town plan requirements.

Harris and another resident of the area, Lora Block, said Tuesday they were pleased that the board will continue to oppose the Chelsea project in court and, in so doing, rejected a settlement offer from the company, which included a $200,000 payment to the town.

"I am very glad the town did not take the $200,000," Block said, but she added, "I am very ambivalent about Apple Hill [Solar]. I think that could set a bad precedent."

Block said she was "stunned by [Woolmington's] reading of the implications of what the town plan says," referring to his explanation to the board Monday concerning the recommendation on Apple Hill Solar.

The attorney said that the developer has proposed revised plans for both projects, each smaller in size with wider natural screening and anti-glare improvements in design — changes he said seem "directly driven" by the requirements of complying with the town plan for the Rural Conservation zoning district, where the projects are proposed.

Woolmington said the town plan issues raised by the town "have been addressed substantially" in the revised design rolled out this spring by the company. And the attorney said there is a precedent of allowing solar projects in other areas of the zoning district.

He also referred to the Apple Hill project as "a different issue" from the court appeal involving Chelsea Solar, because the appeal is based on the original, larger project plan, not the revised one proposed earlier this year.

Block said she disagreed with the attorney's recommendation on Apple Hill Solar, in part because the issue of restricting commercial development in the Rural Conservation district — not only location within the district boundary — is an issue that apparently was given weight in the PUC's rejection of a certificate for the Chelsea project in 2016.

The town withdrawing from the process for Apple Hill Solar could set a bad precedent concerning solar projects within the zoning district, she said, affecting Chelsea Solar and other projects that have been proposed but aren't yet in the permitting process.

Harris said on Tuesday, "I will certainly be fighting as hard as ever," and she expressed encouragement in that "there is still a lot more to be done" by the firm before it can receive state approval for Apple Hill.

That includes erosion control, wind and noise issues and other aspects of the plans, she said.

She added that a different approach to siting issues for energy facilities also seems evident under the administration of Gov. Phil Scott, who took office in January.

"I see [the Public Service Department] as much more open to having a dialogue with citizens," she said, compared to what she experienced under the administration of former Gov. Peter Shumlin.

The Select Board accepted Woolmington's recommendations in three separate votes, agreeing unanimously to reject the Ecos Energy settlement offer and to continue opposition to Chelsea Solar in court; and members voted 5-1, with Jim Carroll opposed, to drop the town's primary argument against a certificate for the revised Apple Hill Solar plan — nonconformance with the town plan.

Carroll said he still believes both solar projects run counter to the town plan. His remark was greeted by applause from many of the approximately two dozen residents attending the meeting.

Brad Wilson, a senior project manager with Ecos Energy, attended the meeting. He said afterward that he would likely have a comment later on the board's votes, but Wilson could not be reached on Tuesday.

The 2-megawatt solar generating arrays are proposed on adjacent sites in the Apple Hill area, northeast of the Route 7/Route 279 interchange and south of Apple Hill Road. The Apple Hill Solar project is situated in the revised design at the southern edge of the site, further away from Apple Hill Road than the Chelsea project and closer to the interchange near the Bennington Welcome Center.

Residents of the area have staunchly opposed the projects, urging the Select Board not to settle with the company and to continue opposing Ecos Energy's plans.

Woolmington's opinion was requested by the board and followed prior discussions among board members and the attorney in executive session over the past two weeks.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.

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