Select Board approves Bennington Energy Plan
The Select Board on Monday approved a 28-page plan recommended in November by the Planning Commission. The board voted unanimously following a second public hearing on the document, which will now become a hefty amendment to the Benningtown Town Plan.
Prior to the vote, the board met in executive session to discuss multiple objections to the plan filed by a solar facility developer, who questioned its adherence to general legal and Act 174 requirements. Board members also reviewed a report on those objections they had received from town counsel, the firm of Woolmington, Campbell, Bernal & Bent.
Vice Chairman Donald Campbell said Tuesday that officials were confident the plan is a sound one and will be able to withstand any legal challenges, especially since it was prepared with assistance from Bennington County Regional Commission staff members.
The BCRC completed a regional energy plan under Act 174 last year, which was certified in June by the state Department of Public Service.
Jim Sullivan, executive director of the BCRC, said the town has asked the regional commission to approve the municipal energy plan and its now-amended overall town plan. He said no further review by the state DPS is required.
Sullivan said he knows of no other community further along in the municipal plan process than Bennington.
The proposal was harshly criticized earlier this month by a developer seeking to install at least three solar generation projects in town, while at the same time it was generally supported by opponents of controversial, side-by-side solar plans for the Apple Hill section of town.
Having an approved energy plan under Act 174 allows a community the highest level of deference for its energy facility siting preferences when proposed projects come before the Vermont Public Utility Commission for permitting. However, while Act 174 gives municipalities with approved plans more influence over siting wind, solar, hydro or other energy facilities, the commission retains the authority to approve projects determined to be of significant benefit to a region or the state as a whole.
Lora Block, a resident of the Apple Hill area, praised the board's decision, saying, "I"m very pleased the Select Board voted to approve the energy amendment. It was the right thing to do, and took courage because the town had received legal threats by a developer."
She added that the changes allowed under Act 174 establish a process that "was really needed because there very little local control before. We now have a somewhat better balance between project developers and local control."
Unsurprisingly, criticism from representatives of solar developer Allco Renewable Energy has focused on a solar siting map in the energy plan and other restrictions on commercial-scale solar projects.
Thomas Melone, president and senior general counsel with Allco Renewable Energy, submitted six pages of written comments just prior to the first energy plan hearing before the board on Jan. 8. Among his contentions were that the plan was "unconstitutional" relative to large solar projects; "violates the public trust doctrine;" does not comply with requirements of the Act 174 energy planning law, and violates federal antitrust law.
Melone contended that the public trust doctrine of the select board as "sovereign trustees" of the environment would be violated by the energy amendment, because of the restrictions on solar project siting included in the plan.
He also stated that the plan and its siting map are unconstitutional in that a citizen committee that helped town officials draft it was dominated by opponents of solar facilities proposed for any site near their property.
Melone said the design of the preferred solar sites map was discriminatory and not based on objective criteria. He also argued that the energy amendment and the map did not comply with Act 174 requirements, specifically the Energy Planning Standards for Municipal Plans, published by the state Department of Public Service.
And he alleges that the Planning Commission failed to adhere to posting and notification requirements in endorsing and submitting the plan to the Select Board for consideration.
Local officials reiterated Monday that they are confident the plan can withstand such challenges.
Sullivan and commission planner Catherine Bryars assisted town officials and staff members in its preparation. Sullivan also oversaw preparation of the BCRC's regional energy plan.
Sullivan said Dorset, Manchester, Pownal and Sunderland also are working with the BCRC on municipal plans.
Solar siting was by far the overriding issue during meetings, but the plan also contains detail on other forms of energy production and information on the town's energy use, goals for reducing power and fuel use; and the suggested goals for town buildings.
On the topic of solar projects, 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.
The plan includes maps showing preferred sites and areas where large solar projects should be restricted or prohibited. It includes restrictions related to wetlands, flood zones, waterways or other environmental factors, and with impacts to historic sites or scenic resources of the town.
The complete plan and related information is posted on the town website at http://benningtonplanningandpermits.com/permits/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/PC-11062017.pdf
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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