BENNINGTON — Developers of two controversial solar projects proposed for the Apple Hill area have lost another in a series of permitting battles – this time before the state Public Utility Commission.
The PUC, which was directed by the Vermont Supreme Court to reconsider aspects of its 2020 denial of permits for Allco Renewable Energy’s Apple Hill Solar project, has once again denied a permit in a decision posted May 16.
The 2.0 megawatt capacity solar project, which has a convoluted history of hearings before the PUC and the Vermont Supreme Court, was first proposed in 2014 along with second, adjacent project of equal size.
Apple Hill Solar – along with the developer’s Chelsea Solar proposal – both have been staunchly opposed by the Apple Hill Homeowners Association and other area residents.
Reached Friday, Lora Block of the homeowner group said in an email, “I’m delighted the PUC made the right decision again. After battling these developers for over seven years on the grounds that their solar plans are incompatible with Bennington’s Town Plan, we as intervenors have won yet again.”
She added, “I think it’s about time these developers finally get this message and realize they won’t win. A solar farm near our Apple Hill neighborhood, and visible from the [Bennington Battle] Monument and the country club, is the wrong place. They need to move on and figure out a location where a solar farm is allowed.”
Thomas Melone, president and senior general counsel with New York-based Allco Renewable Energy, could not be reached for comment on the future of the Apple Hill Solar and Chelsea Solar projects.
The commercial-size solar projects have been revised downward in footprint since first proposed, but were still considered by opponents too large and visible for the hillside location. Opponents contend the installation would destroy the beauty of the scenic site.
The PUC previously approved a certificate for the Apple Hill project in 2018, only to have that appealed by opponents and overturned in 2019 by the Supreme Court. The court remanded the case back to the PUC for more review of some of the arguments entered into the record.
After another review in light of the court’s decision, the commission reversed itself and rejected a permit for Apple Hill in May 2020.
That ruling concluded that – as opponents argued — the proposed facility “would unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region because it would violate two separate land conservation measures in the Bennington Town Plan, and would have an undue adverse impact on aesthetics and the scenic or natural beauty of the area because it would violate two separate clear, written community standards in the Town Plan.”
The Apple Hill area is on a clearly visible hillside to the east of Route 7 as it climbs toward Shaftsbury.
Opponents contended in part that a solar array there would adversely affect the scenic beauty of the entire area and harm its tourism economy.
The developers, however, appealed the PUC denial to the Supreme Court, which last year remanded the case back to the PUC again. That court ruling directed the PUC to conduct another permit review in light of some of the aspects upon which the first denial was issued.
And that led to the decision this month. The PUC again denied a required certificate of public good permit for the Apple Hill project.
“The PUC has consistently upheld Bennington’s Town Plan through all the years of litigation, protecting the prominent hillside on Apple Hill from inappropriate development, thanks to neighbors (not the town),” Annette Smith of Danby, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said in an email.
The PUC also rejected this month a motion from the developer to reopen the evidentiary phase of the permitting process to enter additional information.
Also over the past year, the developer had petitioned the PUC for approval to move both projects as proposed to another site in Bennington off Burgess Road that is within a section of town considered preferable for solar projects.
The opponents had written a statement for the PUC in support of that change of project sites.
But the PUC rejected a preliminary and necessary request from the company, asking to transfer the original contract price for the sale of power generated to the new building site, meaning the projects would have to start anew and seek a new contract rate – likely to be lower than the rate obtained eight years ago.
Meanwhile, the 2.0-megawatt capacity Chelsea Solar project, planned for a nearby site on Apple Hill, is also stalled.
In one instance, the project was denied a permit based on the Town Plan and aesthetics. In another it was rejected from being considered as a separate solar project from Apple Hill that could fall below the 2.2 megawatt maximum size.
Opponents have said they believe that, while Chelsea Solar might now be submitted as a single project without Apple Hill, the contract for sale of power at the price established at the beginning of the project has expired.