Draft town energy plan sent to Select Board

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BENNINGTON — Despite a critical memo from a solar facility developer, Bennington's draft Energy Plan has cleared its first approval hurdle and will soon be reviewed by the Select Board.

The energy plan, proposed as a 28-page amendment to the Town Plan, was unanimously recommended by the Planning Commission on Nov. 6. Next up will be public hearings before the Select Board, scheduled for Jan. 8 and Jan 22, 2018.

If certified by the board and the Bennington County Regional Commission, the town's energy section is in line to become the first municipal plan to be approved under Act 174, the state planning legislation designed to allow communities more influence over the siting of energy facilities if they adopt a comprehensive local plan.

Approval of the draft seems likely if it is certified without significant revisions by the Select Board. Jim Sullivan, executive director of the BCRC, and commission planner Catherine Bryars assisted town officials in its preparation.

However, Brad Wilson, a project developer with Ecos Energy, contends in his memo that the draft fails to meet municipal plan standards that were set forth by the state Department of Public Service.

Ecos Energy proposes two commercial solar arrays in the Apple Hill area of town that have sparked significant opposition among residents of that area and others during the ongoing permitting process.

The solar energy section of the draft energy plan, which encompasses about a third of the entire amendment, was prepared with input from residents and local officials and tightens down on exactly where Bennington wants to encourage large-scale solar development and under what conditions.

In his Oct. 31 memo to the Planning Commission, Wilson said the Department of Public Service "has issued very clear guidance and standards that describe what a new energy plan must and must not contain in order to be certified. These standards must be followed completely and exactly or certification cannot be granted."

Wilson goes on to say: "The current draft includes a number of mistakes and omissions that clearly fail to meet the required plan standards."

Sullivan, who also worked on the Bennington County Regional Energy Plan — the first in the state to win DPS approval in June — said recently that he disagrees with Wilson's assessment of the town's draft plan.

"He felt the mapping [of suitable solar sites] didn't meet the standards; we thought it did," Sullivan said, adding, "The town clearly met the demand for [allowing] solar generation."

He noted that the preferred areas for large-scale solar facilities total 543 acres, which is said to be more than sufficient acreage for the town to meet its goal of 25 megawatts of solar energy production capacity by 2050.

Wilson was critical of language in the draft concerning two approximately 27-acre parcels where Ecos Energy proposes its side-by-side Chelsea Hill and Apple Hill solar arrays and its Battle Creek 2 project.

"It appears that language in the current draft of the Energy Plan attempts to designate these two properties as unsuitable sites for commercial-scale solar," Wilson wrote.

Under current rules, he said, "commercial-scale solar facilities [above 150 kilowatt capacity] are not prohibited on these properties, and the property owner has the right to propose commercial-scale solar facilities that are in compliance with relevant state/local rules and regulations."

Wilson said he will continue to participate in the hearing process before the Select Board to make those and other points about the draft recommended by town planners.



SUPPORT FROM RESIDENTS



Attorney Peter Lawrence, one of the residents who've opposed the Chelsea Hill and Apple Hill projects, said he thought most of those residents supported the plan as recommended by local planners.

"I think it was the appropriate thing to do," he said of the Planning Commission's vote. "I certainly hope the Select Board will adopt it."

Wilson noted that some minor language revisions were made or supported by the commission, "but I don't think the revisions address any issues we have raised."

He said he'll "continue to make our case" as the hearing process moves on.

Wilson added that "Act 174 is such a new thing for the state, and Bennington really is on the cutting edge as one of the first [to draft an energy plan]. This [Act 174] is still being figured out, and the Public Utility Commission hasn't yet seen a project [submitted] under a [municipal] energy plan."

One mapping revision to an earlier draft designates location of a proposed large-scale solar project in a Rural Conservation zoning district a "possible" restraint rather than "known" restraint on that type of development.

It remains unclear how or whether any of the Ecos Energy projects already proposed would be affected by the town's energy plan, since it has yet to be certified.

While there is a considerable amount of language in the plan on the siting of large-scale solar facilities, the town would "encourage" rooftop solar projects "of any scale," and "strongly supports" community solar projects of up to 150 kilowatt capacity for groups of residents, institutions or businesses to gain net-metering electricity credits.

Besides mapping preferred sites and areas where large solar projects should be restricted or prohibited, the plan includes restrictions related to wetlands, flood zone, waterway or other environmental factors, along with impacts to historic sites or scenic resources of the town.

There also are sections relating to screening of solar facilities and other siting guidelines to limit adverse impacts on neighborhoods and public viewsheds.

There is also a sentence relating to the "mass and scale" of solar projects: "Except for projects on preferred sites, solar facilities larger than 10 acres, individually or cumulatively, cannot be adequately screened or mitigated to blend into the municipality's landscape, and are, therefore, explicitly prohibited."

While regions and municipalities with approved energy plans will have more influence than in the past over siting wind, solar, hydro or other energy facilities during the Public Utility Commission's permitting process, the PUC retains the authority to approve projects determined to be of significant benefit to a region or state as a whole.

In the county, Bennington is furthest along in producing a detailed local energy plan, but Manchester, Dorset, Pownal and other towns have been discussing one.

Select Board member Donald Campbell said he and other members of the board have been involved in meetings leading up to the drafting of Bennington's Energy Plan and are familiar with its contents.

He said much work and the consideration of multiple sources of information, data, viewpoints and other factors went into the designation of preferred sites for large-scale solar projects — the issue that by far drew the most interest from the public.

"Some compromises were worked through, and it was based on the data," he said.

While solar was the hot-button issue, the draft Energy Plan also contains considerable detail on other forms of energy production, as well as data and information on the town's energy use, goals for reducing power and fuel use and suggested goals for town buildings, business, residential and rental housing and institutions.

A copy of the plan is posted on the town's website.

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

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