Select Board OK's solar deal but seeks changes

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BENNINGTON — The Select Board decided after an emergency meeting Wednesday to accept a settlement resolving numerous legal and permitting issues related to controversial Allco Renewable Energy solar projects in town.

But the board made that acceptance conditional upon the developer agreeing to language changes advocated by residents during the meeting. Abutters and other Bennington residents remain vociferously opposed to the adjacent commercial solar projects in the scenic Apple Hill area near Route 7 on the north side of town.

The board voted 6-0 to accept the settlement, under which the town would drop its opposition to Allco Renewable's proposed Apple Hill and Chelsea Solar projects, which are planned as 2-megawatt arrays in the prominent Apple Hill section, just east of Route 7 as the highway climbs out of Bennington.

Vice Chairman Donald Campbell said the developer agreed to pay the town $202,250 to cover legal expenses related to opposing the Allco projects and defending against suits and other challenges since the town joined abutters in their opposition three years ago. The payment also covers about three-fourths of the cost for town staff time dedicated to Allco projects.

All outstanding claims against the town would be dropped by the developer. Those include a court challenge related to the town's Energy Plan, which defines preferred areas where solar projects should be allowed, and claims of damages for costs sustained by the developer while attempting to get projects permitted, and over alleged rights violations.

And Allco agreed in the settlement not to develop an orchard site it owns off Apple Hill Road during the life of the two solar projects.

Pointed questions

After describing the agreement and hearing citizen comments for more than two hours, the board went into executive session to consider possible revisions, which the town was expected to submit to the developers on Thursday.

Board members said during the open meeting that Allco Renewable had accepted the five-page agreement as written, and there was no guarantee the developer would consider changes or negotiate further.

Campbell said Thursday morning that the requested revisions focus on four areas of the proposed agreement.

"If they [Allco] accept the changes, it will be all over," he said, adding that the board hopes the developer will find the revised proposal is in the best interests of both parties.

If the changes are rejected the Allco, the board would have to vote again, he said.

Among the proposed changes, the board wants to strike language that calls on the town to declare it agrees that the revised Chelsea solar plan "is consistent with the Town Plan in effect in 2014," when the projects were proposed.

Residents who spoke Wednesday said that language is unnecessary, as the town was agreeing to drop its opposition, and it is likely to set a precedent for future projects and undercut the continued opposition of Apple Hill residents and others.

Effects on scenery

Board members were grilled by residents of the Apple Hill neighborhood opposed to the projects because of the potential effect on the hillside view from the Bennington Battle Monument, Mount Anthony Country Club, the state Welcome Center just north of the downtown and other locations.

Maru Leon, co-owner of the country club, said the scenic views that will be disrupted are not only visible from Apple Hill but also from the golf course, the Monument and elsewhere.

She urged the board to take the visual impact on tourism and on the entire town, saying "this is the reason billboards are banned" in Vermont.

Leon and others contended that despite natural screening around the project sites, the solar arrays will be clearly visible from higher elevations, such as the campus of Southern Vermont College.

Lora Block, a member of the Apple Hill Homeowners Association, said a green mesh material proposed as part of the screening actually appears black. She said she fears looking at Apple Hill, especially during the winter, and seeing "acres and acres of black boxes."

Block asked the board to insist on agreement language giving the town greater leverage in final determinations regarding screening plans for the arrays.

Urged to fight on

The residents urged the board to continue fighting Allco over what they said was an important issue for the entire town, not just the Apple Hill area. The visual effects will be evident, they said, for travelers entering Vermont via Route 7 from the south, on Route 279 from New York state to the west and via Route 9 from points east.

Campbell, who chaired the emergency meeting, said a recent decision from the state Public Utility Commission unexpectedly went against the town and caused local officials and their attorneys to reconsider the risks and costs of continuing the fight.

Campbell and Merrill Bent, of Woolmington, Campbell, Bent & Stasny, the town's law firm, said the PUC determined in late August that the Chelsea project did not have to apply for permits under Bennington's newly revised Town Plan, with its more specific and stricter set of requirements for energy project siting, but under the previous plan, adopted in 2010.

"We really thought we were going to win on that," Campbell said during the board meeting. "I'm thinking the PUC miffed it."

He added that, even if the town prevailed on that point before the commission, there would likely be an appeal by Allco to the Supreme Court.

The revised Chelsea project as resubmitted after first being rejected by the commission is 42 percent smaller in its footprint than the original design and now calls for natural screening, Campbell said, and the Apple Hill project was revised so that it is 26 percent smaller and also has natural screening.

Those factors could convinced the PUC to approve the updated plans, he said, which would leave the town with much less influence than it would have under the proposed agreement, after having spent more on legal fees and staff time.

He said the board called the emergency meeting because "there is some urgency" in light of a pending PUC hearing regarding the Chelsea project set for Sept. 20, and the legal firm would have to prepare for that session if the town continues its opposition.

The residents, however, urged the board to defend its siting regulation plans and not to abandon the residents who now must face Allco Renewable without town support.

"We can go forward and fight this," said Rick Carroll.

"I'm extremely disappointed and upset that the town has decided to settle with these predatory developers," Block said Thursday. "In my opinion, this is the process these developers count on — to strain their opponents beyond the breaking point in terms of time and money."

She added that "the gorgeous views from primary tourist and important economic resources in our region will be ruined if Apple Hill and Chelsea are built."

Block said that she, Leon and others "will not be caving," and will continue to be involved in the permitting process, "even if the town can't."

Town Manager Stuart Hurd said late Thursday afternoon that he did not expect any immediate announcements concerning the settlement proposal.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com. @BB_therrien on Twitter.




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