Differing views of town energy plan emerge
By Jim Therrien
BENNINGTON — The charged issue of solar power facility siting produced some sparks Monday, even after a public hearing on the Planning Commission's draft town energy plan was postponed for lack of a quorum.
Planning Director Dan Monks explained that health issues had forced the commission to reschedule the meeting for Nov. 6, then asked if any audience members nevertheless wanted to offer comments despite the lack of a formal hearing.
That led to a few questions, an expression of support for the proposal and some criticism from a representative of Ecos Energy, which is pursuing two controversial solar projects in the Apple Hill section of town.
Brad Wilson, a senior project manager with Ecos Energy, said he believes the draft plan is out of compliance with state requirements for local energy plans and therefore could face legal challenges.
Commissioners have completed the draft and seemed prepared to vote Monday on whether to submit the proposal to the Select Board for adoption. However, the lack of a quorum meant that the required hearing will have to wait until the next commission session.
If approved then, and again following more hearings before the Select Board, the 27-page proposal would become the new energy section of the Town Plan document — once it also clears reviews at the county and state levels.
Large-scale solar facility siting has been the "hot button issue" during development of the energy section, Monks said, though he noted that the plan covers all forms of energy production and provides voluminous data on overall energy use in Bennington.
"A lot of work went into this, and I hope the Planning Commission approves it in its entirety as written and passes it on to the Select Board with the recommendation that they adopt it," said attorney Peter Lawrence, one of the Apple Hill neighborhood residents who've staunchly opposed the side-by-side Ecos Energy solar projects.
He praised the town commission's efforts to prepare the draft with the assistance of staff members at the Bennington County Regional Commission.
State Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, Rick Carroll, of the Apple Hill area, and others said they'd like to see the plan adoption process move along without further delays.
A town energy plan that also is approved by the BCRC at the county level and by the state Department of Public Service will allow the community "substantial deference" during state Public Utility Commission proceedings on the siting of large solar or other energy generating facilities.
State-approved individualized energy sections allow communities to refine the siting suitability maps and guidelines beyond those in the BCRC's countywide energy plan, which won DPS approval in June.
While the Apple Hill area residents in attendance Monday have generally voiced support for the proposed local plan, Wilson said he has several questions and concerns. But he said he'd wait to discuss those in detail when the commission holds a formal hearing.
"I do believe there are some compliance issues, and I will address them at the next meeting," he said.
Wilson added that "the concerns are major ones," and he believes they could lead to future legal challenges.
Monks and commissioners noted that the energy plan was developed with help from Jim Sullivan, executive director of the BCRC, and regional BCRC planner Catherine Bryars.
Sullivan, who was unable to attend the meeting, was involved in preparing the BCRC's regional energy plan and "is the expert on that," Monks said.
But Wilson insisted that sections of the plan are "out of compliance" with state requirements and could be challenged.
Lora Block, another Apple Hill resident, responded that "his [Wilson's] agenda is obvious," adding that company is known to file numerous legal challenges when seeking state approval for a solar facility.
The two 2-megawatt Apple Hill solar projects are currently facing challenges before the PUC and/or before the Vermont Supreme Court.
The proposed energy plan includes a number of incentives, along with specifications and restrictions on the siting of solar facilities in Bennington. Included is a map showing the preferred sites where larger solar arrays — with a capacity of 150 kilowatts or greater — must be located.
Large solar facilities can't be located where they would adversely impact the town's traditional or planned patterns of growth, including downtown or village centers surrounded by rural countryside or working farms, and facilities can't adversely impact scenic views.
The plan refers to Mount Anthony, for instance, as "specifically identified as a critical scenic resource for the town in its Scenic Resource Inventory."
Preferred sites for large facilities include sites in proximity to large scale commercial or industrial buildings, brownfields sites, gravel pits, closed landfills and former quarries.
The town has "limited potential for utility scale wind energy development," the plan states, "as areas with sufficient access to consistent wind are restricted primarily to higher elevations on Mount Anthony and adjacent ridgelines."
Bryars said Monday that Bennington is furthest along in the county in producing a detailed town energy plan, while Manchester, Dorset, Pownal and other towns have been discussing one.
In June, Bennington County's regional energy plan became the first of its type to be certified by the Department of Public Service under provisions of Act 174. The plan constitutes a lengthy amendment to the area's regional plan.
In addition to meeting requirements under Act 174, the certification qualified the BCRC to review and approve energy plans from towns in the region.
A key aspect of Act 174 is that it allows regions and municipalities more influence than in the past over siting wind, solar, hydro or other energy facilities during the Public Utility Commission's permitting process.
Developers also receive financial incentives for building in areas designated as preferred for a given type of facility.
The Legislature sought to address in Act 174 concerns that communities had too little say over the location of energy projects, while also continuing to allow the PUC to overrule blanket local opposition to projects that would be of benefit regionwide or statewide.
A draft copy of the town energy plan can be found at http://benningtonplanningandpermits.com/permits/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/2017-Bennington-Energy-Plan.pdf
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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