SHAFTSBURY — Town officials made a point of posting ground rules for a public forum Wednesday on a controversial solar array proposal that already is generating heat – if not yet electricity – among abutters and other residents.
The project, called Shaftsbury Solar, would have a 20-megawatt generating capacity and cover about 85 acres, making it one of the largest in Vermont. It is proposed on acres of land off Holy Smoke and East roads, west of Route 7.
During recent town board meetings and on social media, the project has been ripped by many as being far too large for the site and for Shaftsbury.
Opponents quickly formed stopshaftsburysolar.org, which contends the facility would be a massive eyesore and would destroy “85 acres of prime ag land,” while requiring clear-cutting 30 acres of trees.
The array would be "equivalent to more than 87 football-fields of destruction,” Jesse McDougall, of Studio Hill Farm, said in a post on the website.
He added, “This will be disastrous for our wildlife, soil ecosystem, water ways, and way of life — all things that well-planned renewable energy infrastructure should protect! It is unbelievably un-Vermont!”
But more recently a Facebook discussion group, Support Shaftsbury Solar, showed there is also support in town for the renewable energy project, which was outlined by the developers before the Select Board in early January.
On that Facebook page, which generally supports the project or promotes more discussion on the topic, Bill Christian said, “The people that are designing this project say that it will be nearly impossible to see from public locations. I have no great reason not to believe them, since they are actually studying it at the site.”
VT Real Estate Holdings 1 LLC is proposing the facility, to be called Shaftsbury Solar.
The Connecticut-based firm that would own the project, Freepoint Solar, is working with SunEast Development, also based in Connecticut, on the Shaftsbury proposal. Both firms have been associated with several large-scale solar projects in the Northeast region.
VHB of South Burlington prepared site plans and designs for the project in the initial, 45-day advance notice of submission of a permit application to the state Public Utility Commission, a copy of which was sent to the town in late December.
Permitting for energy projects in Vermont is handled by the PUC, not at the local level. The commission will take comments from the developer, officials from the town, regional planning officials, and likely from abutters and others during the process.
To put the proposed facility’s 20-megawatt capacity in perspective, all of the solar projects completed or proposed in the Bennington County area have a capacity of 2.2-megawatt or less.
Stressing the fossil fuel displacement of a facility of this size, the developers stated in their 45-day notice letter, “The project is designed to provide 38,000 [megawatt] hours [plus or minus] of renewable energy each year to the New England electric grid, thereby helping to meet the region’s electric demand in a cost-effective manner and achieve its carbon reduction goals.”
During prior town board meetings, opponents said the huge array would be prominent from multiple vantage points.
McDougall contended that “this power plant will be visible for miles — from many homes and vistas north of Holy Smoke Road from Route 7A in the west to Glastenbury in the east.”
“The real gut punch is that they’re going to dirty someone’s backyard to provide power to another state,” said Select Board member Joe Barber said during a board meeting. “None of us are against solar, but we want it done right.”
He added that the estimated $100,000 in tax revenue the town would receive from the project is not worth the disruption it would cause in the community.
“It’s a misnomer to call this a ‘solar farm.’ That makes it sound all cute and nice,” commented Kit Ausschnitt. “This is an industrial power plant.”
Lynn Stratton, another resident, said not everyone from her street could attend the meeting, but everyone is in agreement. ”We’re beside ourselves. We’ll do whatever we can to fight this,” she said.
In addition, more than 100 comments were posted to the PUC website concerning the developer's 45-day advance notice of an intention to seek permits for the facility.
Almost all were from town or area residents who were opposed to the project, many strenuously opposed. They cited concerns about the impacts on a scenic area, on wildlife and the potential for radiation hazards from the solar panels, as well as the loss of agricultural land and clear-cutting of a wooded site.
"Projects like this do not advance Vermont’s renewable energy goals or the energy transformation transition," said Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment. "It is a great example of how to do it wrong. Vermont needs locally distributed generation that serves our communities ... Vermont is especially well suited for smaller projects that are built close to load on already-disturbed lands (Shaftsbury has plenty of those with all the old gravel pits) and create electricity purchased and used by people who live nearby."
The forum on the solar proposal – during a special meeting of the Planning Commission – is scheduled for Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Shaftsbury Elementary School and remotely via Zoom.
Information for the Zoom session can be found on the town website, https://shaftsburyvt.gov/information/agendas.php.
The meeting rules that were posted state:
1. This is a forum for citizens to share their opinions and information on all sides of the issue.
2. There is a time limit of 2 minutes per person for comments.
3. Everyone will be able to speak until all who wish to speak have been heard.
4. Audience questions will be directed and answered by the Planning Commission Members or the panel of experts. Inter-audience discussion or answering of citizen questions from the floor will be prohibited at this forum.
5. People will be called on before speaking. State your name before presenting your comment. Organizers will alternate between Zoom and in-person attendees.
6. If you are attending on Zoom check to see if your sound is working and you know how to raise your hand to be called on. There will be no a chat function in this call.
7. Read the information on the town website regarding the [Public Utility Commission’s] timeline and how to make comments to the PUC board going forward.