BENNINGTON — The Select Board was unanimous Monday in supporting the proposed settlement of more than seven years of controversy and litigation surrounding two commercial solar generating facilities planned for the Apple Hill area.
The board agreed to a written request for support from the developer, Allco Renewable Energy Ltd., which has sparked intense neighborhood opposition with its plan for two 2-megawatt solar arrays on a prominent hillside along Route 7 as it climbs toward Shaftsbury.
The settlement with opponents on Apple Hill involves shifting the two projects to another site in Bennington that is within an area designated as preferable for solar facilities.
The board made its vote of support Monday contingent upon the final project design and whether it complies with town screening and other requirements for solar projects.
The Select Board was asked to support a settlement agreement between the developer and the Apple Hill Homeowners Association for Allco Renewable to shift the two projects across town — apparently to land off Burgess Road — and drop its plans for Apple Hill.
A 27.82-acre parcel of mostly wooded land was purchased by a corporate entity linked to the developer and apparently is the new proposed site, although that hasn’t been specified by Allco Renewable.
The company has yet to apply to the state Public Utility Commission for a permit allowing a solar facility. That must await a PUC determination on whether the two projects can be transferred to a new location and retain the same power sale contract price that was obtained for the Apple Hill location.
Unlike Apple Hill, the Burgess Road parcel is mostly within an area designated as preferable for renewable energy projects under the town Energy Plan, Town Planner Dan Monks told the board.
Michael Melone, of Allco Renewable, asked for the town’s support in a letter to the board. Allco Renewable, he said, has filed a petition with PUC proposing the settlement agreement and seeking necessary PUC approvals.
The key approval required is Allco’s request to shift the two projects to a new site and maintain the original price for sale of the power generated, which is higher than most such contracts in recent years.
The PUC apparently has never granted such a transfer from one parcel to an entirely new location.
A limited liability corporation associated with Melone’s 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.
PLH Vineyard Sky has Thomas Melone, Michael’s father, the president and senior counsel of Allco Renewable Energy, listed as corporate agent.
The 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 around the state.
The two projects on Apple Hill, called Chelsea Solar and Apple Hill Solar, are both stalled after years of disputes with opponents before the PUC and in the courts.
Opponents contend that the two large arrays would ruin a scenic view from the Bennington Battle Monument and other tourist stops and highways and thus have a negative impact on tourism and the local economy.
Town Assessor John Antognioni has said a subdivision was planned years ago for the Burgess-Stocklee roads parcel but work never proceeded.
The prior owner filed a permit in 2007 to build 50 townhouses, he said, but construction was never begun.
As described in a PUC petition filed in August by Michael Melone, mediation talks resulting in 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 wrote.
If the projects are allowed to 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 parcel.
The PUC has yet to issue a decision on the petition from Melone regarding a site change.