BENNINGTON — The developer of two large, controversial solar projects in the Apple Hill area of town — both stalled amid stiff opposition from neighbors — apparently has purchased a 27.82-acre parcel of mostly wooded land off Burgess Road.
In addition, Michael Melone, of Allco Renewable Energy Ltd. referred in an Aug. 24 filing with the Vermont Public Utility Commission to a settlement agreement worked out with opponents of the two Apple Hill projects.
Melone said that settlement is contingent upon his firm being allowed by the PUC to shift the two projects on Apple Hill to an unnamed Bennington parcel and retain the original state-approved conditions regarding power purchasing costs for utilities granted to the projects about eight years ago in standard offer contracts.
OFF BURGESS ROAD
Melone could not be reached for comment on where that site is located. But a limited liability corporation associated with his development firm, PLH Vineyard Sky LLC purchased 27.82 acres off Stocklee Lane and Burgess Road for $250,000 on Aug. 19 from Bennington Village Associates LLC.
The purchase price for the mostly wooded site is well above the assessed value of $57,200.
PLH Vineyard Sky has Thomas Melone, Michael’s father, the president and senior counsel of the company, Allco Renewable Energy, listed as corporate agent. Thomas Melone also could not be reached for comment.
Both Melones have been involved in filing PUC and court petitions and motions regarding the Allco Renewable solar projects in Bennington and in several other locations in Vermont.
According to town Assessor John Antognioni, a subdivision was planned for the Burgess-Stocklee roads parcel but work did not proceed.
“The prior owner had filed a permit in 2007 to build 50 townhouses, but no work was ever started,” he said.
The PUC has yet to issue a decision on the petition from Melone regarding a site change. If granted, it apparently would be the first time the commission has allowed a developer to shift the terms of a standard-offer contract covering sale of power to a utility to a completely different parcel.
If the projects can be moved, the developer would still have to acquire local permits and a certificate of public good from the PUC to place commercial solar generating facilities on the Stocklee-Burgess site. That land is located in an area deemed preferred for solar projects under the town’s recently amended Energy Plan.
Town Planning Director Daniel Monks said that, based on a map view of the site, most of the parcel is in an area preferred for solar development.
As described in the PUC petition filed by Michael Melone, mediation talks resulting a settlement were begun in late May with leading opponents of the projects, including the Apple Hill Homeowners Association and abutting property owner Libby Harris.
On Aug. 9, he stated, the parties reached “a mutually agreeable settlement agreement in an effort to put an end to the seven years of litigation related to the Apple Hill and Chelsea solar projects.”
The agreement “contemplates the relocation of both the Apple Hill Solar project and the Chelsea Solar project out of the Apple Hill neighborhood to a ‘Preferred Area’ for solar facilities in Bennington,” as defined in the Energy Plan adopted in January 2018, Melone said.
The settlement is contingent, however, on PUC approval of the petition to shift the solar projects to the new site under the same standard-offer power purchasing provisions, which include rates for the power produced that are higher than those in recent agreements in the state.
Under the proposed settlement, “a path forward would emerge to end the seven years of litigation surrounding the Chelsea and Apple Hill solar facilities,” Melone wrote.
On Apple Hill, which is to the east of Route 7 as it rises toward the Shaftsbury line and south of Houghton Lane, the developer has proposed two 2-megawatt capacity solar arrays, one called Apple Hill Solar, the other called Chelsea Solar.
Both are currently stalled in the regulatory process after a number of decisions over the years by the PUC, the Vermont Supreme Court and other courts where the Melones or their subsidiary companies filed suit against several opponents of the projects.
Those court disputes apparently would be settled if the project is allowed to shift to a new location, away from Apple Hill.
Currently, the Supreme Court is considering an appeal from the developer of a PUC rejection last year of a certificate of public good for the Apple Hill project over non-conformance with town requirements for a large solar site.
Those include the aesthetics of a large solar project on the hillside location that is visible from much of Bennington and, according to opponents, is a threat to the local tourism industry in its reliance on scenic areas.
Opponents contend that both projects would run afoul of the same requirements in the Town Plan because of impacts on a town’s Rural Conservation zoning district.
Reached Wednesday, attorney Brooke Dingledine, of VDM Law, of Barre, who represents the Apple Hill project opponents, declined comment at this time.
The Chelsea Solar project was rejected by the PUC after it was determined to be a continuous project with adjacent Apple Hill, putting the total capacity above the state’s 2.2-megawatt limit at approximately 4 megawatts.