SHAFTSBURY — The residents of Holy Smoke Road are objecting to what they believe is an 80-acre eyesore proposed for their neighborhood — a solar panel field.
At the Jan. 3 Shaftsbury Select Board meeting, the town heard a presentation for a solar project off of Holy Smoke Road and East Road.
Jeff Nelson, a strategic advisor at regional engineering firm VHB, presented the plans with Reed Wills, chief operating officer at SunEast Development, a private solar energy development company.
Before they began their presentation, Select Board Chairman Art Whitman said, “The state of Vermont has said that we can’t have any zoning bylaws that impact solar projects. … It’s in our town plan to encourage things like renewable energy.”
He reminded the multiple residents present at the meeting that the Select Board is not a decision maker for this project, only an instrument to bring everyone together and get the information out.
Nelson started by introducing the project. “I emphasize the word ‘introduce’ … this is the beginning of the process,” he said.
Part of VHB’s work is to be responsible for the site’s civil design, stormwater and erosion control design, minimizing the project’s impact on wetlands, and other such variables. The firm will also conduct a sound study.
Nelson wants to “move the project forward in a collaborative way.”
“We’re here to begin a process of working with this community and state agencies in order to ensure the project we are proposing makes sense and is done the right way,” said Wills. He said he believes all the residents’ concerns about health and safety, sound and aesthetic issues can be addressed.
Most of the proposed site for the solar field is on a piece of land that is already cleared, according to Nelson. There are some trees that need to be cut, but they’re trying to minimize the cutting as much as possible.
In addition to the solar panels, driveways will be installed around the area for easy access to the panels for maintenance and repairs.
There is already an existing electric transmission line operated by Green Mountain Power that is east of the panels, so there will not have to be any off-site electrical power upgrades. There should be no new power lines or a need to clear land for electricity.
Part of the plan includes adding more landscape to strategically block the panels, which some consider an eyesore. Evergreen trees will be planted so the view of the panels is blocked all year round.
About 85 acres of land is being used for the solar panels, according to Wills, but the companies are buying a total of 187 acres. Wills said they’re open to community input regarding what to do with the extra hundred acres of unused land.
“Every hour that our project is generating solar electricity, a less efficient fossil fuel plant is not running,” said Wills. It’s expected to do a lot to offset the impacts of fossil fuel. Nelson said that it could bring up to $100,000 in tax revenue to Shaftsbury.
The construction should only last for the 2024 construction season, assuming everything goes well.
Another concern from residents is where the electricity is going and who is buying it. The developers said it’s possible that a portion of the electricity will stay in Vermont, but they do not have an official answer as to who will buy the electricity. There is no guarantee that the electricity will be diverted to Shaftsbury or Vermont.
Residents of Holy Smoke Road attended the meeting and had several questions for the developers.
A man who lives directly across the street from the project was concerned with the visual impact of the panels. Another street resident agreed and talked about how he sits on his porch to watch the wildlife in the field. “One of the major reasons we moved to Shaftsbury is at threat right now, and that’s really concerning to us,” he said.
That same resident voiced concern over the proximity of the panels to his home. According to the preliminary plans, some panels will be within 250 feet of his residence.
The big question, he wondered, is if they’re buying 185 acres of land, why are the panels going to be placed directly next to the road and houses? Nelson said the plans could be tweaked to move the panels to a different location on the property, but nothing was confirmed at this introductory presentation.