BENNINGTON — Planning Commission members will recommend against declaring that a revised Chelsea Solar project is within a “preferred site” for solar facilities under town plan requirements.
The commission voted unanimously Thursday to send its recommendation to the Select Board, which will decide what comments the town will submit to the state Public Utility Commission should the developer seek permitting.
The developer of the long-stalled project, Allco Renewable Energy LTD, had sought the preferred site designation last fall for the controversial 2-megawatt project, which is proposed for the scenic Apple Hill area.
Put forth with a different site plan eight years ago, the commercial-size project has been staunchly opposed by neighbors and other residents, and has been rejected for permits by the PUC, despite several appeals to the commission and to the Vermont Supreme Court.
Commission Chairman Michael McDonough will draft the recommendation, which town Planning Director Daniel Monks said will then go to the Select Board unless a commission member believes more discussion is needed.
In that case, Monks said, another meeting will be scheduled.
“I’m so happy that they voted this way,” said Rick Carroll, one of the Apple Hill neighbors who attended the commission meeting. “They did the right thing; they’re protecting the town.”
“They did their due diligence, and we are very happy with their findings,” said Maru Leon-Griffin, owner of the Mount Anthony Country Club, who has raised concerns about the visual impact of a large solar array on the prominent hillside and on the local tourism industry.
The commission meeting Thursday was the third held on the issue since Michael Melone, of Allco Renewable Energy, notified the town in October of the revised site plan, which the company intended to submit to the PUC for approval.
During the prior meetings, the developer presented reports from two consultants hired by Allco who supported the assertion that the revised plan allows the site to be considered preferred under town plan standards.
Melone said in his letter that the revisions, primarily designed to screen a solar array covering about 5 acres, would include shifting the array on the 27-acre parcel toward Route 7 and lowering a portion of the site through excavation to conceal the panels.
“By moving the footprint of the project further south to take advantage of the topographical features ... the project is naturally screened from all significant public vantage points,” Melone said in an Oct. 19 letter. “From the north, south, east and west, the existing vegetation and natural slope of the terrain naturally screen the entire array.”
Impacts on the scenic beauty of the hillside area east of Route 7, which is visible from many areas in Bennington, were cited in past rejections of the Chelsea Solar project.
If the town were to determine the project is within a preferred area, Melone added in his letter, “We are also formally requesting that the town support our efforts to obtain a certificate of public good for the project before the PUC.”
Melone could not be reached Friday for comment on the commission’s negative vote.
One important consideration, McDonough said during commission deliberations prior to the vote, is that the proposed revisions include “manipulations” of the site through excavating a section to screen solar panels.
The town’s preferred site standards, he said, seem to refer only to naturally occurring and existing natural screening, such as a wooded area.
In addition, commissioners said approving such a site for preferred status might open the door to alteration of other parcels in town in a bid for the same preferred designation.
The town plan includes mapped areas totaling about 500 acres that are preferred for solar projects, but it also allows other sites to be considered if they meet certain specifications, such as having adequate, existing natural screening.