Board gets legal opinion on Apple Hill solar projects

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BENNINGTON — The Select Board has accepted a recommendation from town attorney Rob Woolmington to continue opposing one of two solar energy projects for the Apple Hill area while dropping the town's principal objection to a second, similar proposal.

After hearing a detailed presentation from Woolmington during a meeting Monday, the board voted 5-1, with Jim Carroll opposed, to no longer oppose Ecos Energy's Apple Hill Solar plan, which is before the state Public Utility Commission for approval in a revised form with a smaller project footprint.

During a discussion, and while fielding questions from residents opposed to the projects, Woolmington recommended dropping the town's principal objection based on the project's incompatibility with provisions in the town plan for the Rural Conservation zoning district.

He said revisions in the original proposal made by the developer added wider buffer zones, reduced the amount of land for the adjacent solar arrays, and included changes to reduce glare from solar panels. He said those changes show that Ecos Energy has taken steps to comply with provision in the town plan.

Woolmington added that he couldn't recommend continuing to oppose approvals for the 2-megawatt Apple Hill project on the basis of nonconformance with the town plan, especially since the town has approved solar projects in other sections of the Rural Conservation district.

But Woolmington recommended continuing to monitor the Apple Hill permitting process before the PUC to ensure no new concerns arise and that the details of the project remain as described in the developer's revision.

The town is an intervenor in both permit proceedings.

In answer to questions from residents, the attorney also noted that the Bennington town plan is being revised and that those who would like to see more specific language in sections related to siting of energy projects could make those views known to town officials.

Concerning the second 2-megawatt solar project, called Chelsea Hill Solar, the board voted 6-0 to accept the attorney's recommendation to continue to oppose the company's appeal of a certificate denial for that project, stemming from a state Public Utility Commission decision in 2016. The company has appealed that certificate denial to the Vermont Supreme Court.

Woolmington said an important difference in that case is that the appeal concerns the original version of the solar project, not a smaller, revised proposal that was presented as an option in June.

The board also had received a settlement offer from the firm calling for the town to drop its opposition to the projects and a $200,000 payment to Bennington. At Woolmington's recommendation, the board voted 6-0 Monday to reject that settlement offer.

Brad Wilson, a senior project manager with Ecos Energy, attended the meeting. He said afterward that he would likely have a comment on the board's votes, but wanted more time to consider his response.

The two 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 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 and others have staunchly opposed the projects, urging the Select Board at meetings not to settle with the company and to continue opposing Ecos Energy.

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

This article will be updated.

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


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