Monday, November 19, 2012

Solar Projects In Charlotte Have Residents Debating Use Of Local Fields

The American love of electric- and oil-based convenience from ever-larger pick-up trucks, multiple cars and power-gobbling household machines is as much a part of the fabric of life in Vermont as it is elsewhere.
Melissa Colvin and her husband are opposed to a proposed solar farm
that would be installed behind their home on Hinesburg Road in Charlotte.

It remains to be seen if the drought and Sahara-like temperatures of the summer of 2012 will begin to nudge popular opinion to reconsider sources of power. For while a retreat from polluting, nonrenewable sources of power is attractive to some government officials and many individuals, the face of change also runs up against “NIMBYism.”

“Everyone loves it,” Charlotte Selectboard Chairman Charles Russell said of solar power before adding the crucial qualifier: “Just not in my backyard.”

Russell was a supporter of a proposal last year to build an array of 14 solar panels on town-owned land on Thompson’s Point Road in Charlotte. The panels would have provided enough power for three or four of the town’s buildings, Russell said.

Jeff McDonald, chairman of the Planning Commission, said the commission, with his vote, narrowly came out against the project, deciding it controverted the intent of the town plan to preserve open space.

The majority of the commission, he said, while supportive of the idea of renewable energy, concluded in agreement with many who have camps or walk on the point that the field on Thompson was not the best location.

“The discussion,” McDonald said, “was, What is the appropriate location?”

He said the need to approve the project by the end of the year to allow the installer to tap into tax incentive programs also bothered some, who felt they were being asked to make a momentous decision too quickly.

A private company, AllEarth Renewables, from Williston, would have installed 14 “trackers” — solar panels that move with the sun — next to the Thompson’s Point wastewater plant.

Opposition surfaced from many summer-camp owners just down the road. They objected that the array would be unsightly.

“This field,” said opponent Jill Paul, referring to the proposed location on the Thompson’s Point access road, “was very visible. They’re big,” she said of the trackers. “They move, and they make noise.”

In the face of that opposition and the opinion from the Planning Commission, the Selectboard backed off the project last November.

AllEarth spokesman Andrew Savage said the town would have locked in a price for power “competitive with current rates” and insulated itself from inexorably rising power costs. After five years, he said, the town would have had the option of buying the solar trackers and making the power source permanent. “We have similar arrangements with Starksboro and Hinesburg … and some businesses, too,” he said.

He described the opposition as primarily summer residents of the camps on the point — “a very isolated group of individuals.”

But are the solar trackers “ugly,” as some of those individuals said?

Savage said that from AllEarth’s perspective, the usual polluting sources of power — coal-burning plants and the landscape-destroying mining techniques used to extract coal — exemplify ugliness. “We think there’s a beauty in being able to see where your energy is produced,” he said.

“It wasn’t the pristine spot people would like to make it out to be,” Russell said of the field by the sewer plant.

Project embraced

Nearby, the 17 household living on Ten Stones Circle in Charlotte embraced a solar project that is now up and working.

As that project came together, NIMBYism of the Thompson’s Point variety never surfaced. Sunday, the families in the small, enclosed neighborhood held a celebration of their collective (three tracker) solar system, with ice-cream provided by Ben and Jerry’s and with an endorsement of their YIMBYism (Yes, in my backyard) by environmental luminary Bill McKibben, who wrote to them:

“YIMBY is a slogan for our times! Environmentalists have to say no pretty often — but what a lovely feeling to be able to say ‘Yes, right here, right now.’ My home,” he continued, “runs on solar energy, and so does my office; this is not impossible or even all that hard. We just need enthusiastic people to make sure it happens!”

The Ten Stones 24 kilowatt system relies on three trackers installed out of the sight of passersby on the highway and invisible to the families from their homes.

“They’re beautiful,” said Rebecca Foster, who was a lead proponent of the project, showing off the solar panels to a visitor. “My concern is to keep as much carbon in the ground as possible. If I just plug into the wall, I’m using carbon-based energy, which is polluting.”

She acknowledged that the Ten Stones community, well-educated, relatively prosperous and with land enough, could move off the grid fairly easily and make the appearance of the trackers, well screened by trees, no issue at all.

A few miles east, on Hinesburg Road just west of Spear Street, a much larger project can’t be so easily concealed.

Not so fast

A commercial project calling itself the Charlotte Solar Farm has asked for a Certificate of Public Good from the state’s Public Service Board for an installation, its petition said, of “8,250 individual 280-watt solar panels … attached to a fixed mounting system composed of steel and aluminum support pieces …arranged in east to west rows with panels placed two high on each row … tilted at 30 degrees.”

The Public Service Board decision is expected soon.

In supportive testimony for the permit, a Burlington environmental consultant, Scott Mapes, said the trackers would “not have an undue adverse effect on aesthetics, historic sites, air and water purity or the natural environment.”

The project would go in with a minimum of disturbance to the meadow, and planners have agreed, Mapes testified, to a reclamation plan at the request of the Agency of Agriculture, Farms and Markets so that when the project finally is disassembled, the “entire area will be plowed to a depth of 8 (inches) and prepared for re-seeding or planting …”

Neighbors disagree, saying the solar farm would be in the now-picturesque meadow right behind or beside their county-located suburban-style homes.

They’ve hired the Burlington law firm of McNeil, Leddy and Sheahan to fight the permit. In a submission to the board, lawyer Bill Ellis says the solar array would be a “massive” project of 15 acres plopped down on a 46-acre “heretofore pristine, open meadow.”

It would be equivalent, Ellis continues, “to a 2,000 car parking lot or eleven football fields.” The solar farm, he says, would be larger that the parking lot between Walmart and Home Depot in Williston and about the same size as the parking garage and main terminal at the Burlington airport.

The neighbors’ objection quotes extensively from the town plan, whose “first stated goal,” Ellis says, is to “maintain and protect Charlotte’s rural character and heritage.”

The project, he argues, would take about 15 acres out of hay production, lower the value of nearby properties by as much as 50 percent and make the area less desirable to tourists.

And, Ellis adds, of those testifying to the Public Service Board, all the witnesses except Charlotte Solar’s witness said the project would have “an undue adverse effect on aesthetics.”

He also argued that because the project would be built by an out-of-state firm, “the bulk of the proposed project’s components provides no economic benefit to Vermont or its residents.”

Ellis ends his brief to the Public Service Board by telling members they are the “neighbors’ last best chance to stop this monstrosity of a project from being sited in a location where it just does not fit.”

The Vermont Public Service Department supports the project, with stipulations (similar to those suggested by the town) to move the array slightly west to make the project less visible and to make it slightly smaller.

Melissa Colvin and her family strongly oppose the Charlotte Solar Farm project. They moved to Vermont in part because of its natural beauty, she said, and the setting of their house on Hinesburg Road (adjoining the proposed solar array) exemplified that serene beauty.

She said that although Vermont’s commitment to renewable energy is admirable, and it is “OK to lead the nation” in that sensibility, the state should move carefully, “doing it in such a way not to destroy what Vermont has worked so hard to preserve.”

Colvin said she hopes the Public Service Board takes the Vermont ethos into account in making its decision.

“We work so hard to preserve,” she said, pointing out where workers pounded tall stakes into the broad field Wednesday to mark off the building site, “and people come from all over the United Sates to see the beauty.”

NIMBYism has become less of a motivating force for the neighbors who have hired Ellis to represent them than the prospect that the project will create a precedent, she said, that natural beauty and rural calm can be ignored if it gets in the way of a commercial development.

“People look to us,” she said.

Selectboard chairman Russell said the town is not participating in the hearings and is not actively opposing the project. For one thing, he said, the town’s bylaws make clear that any project reviewable by the Public Service Board is exempt from local review.

“It was pretty clear,” he said, “that this was not something we were going to stop.”

Still unsettled

On Thompson’s Point, feelings remain unsettled, months after the town’s solar plan there was scuttled.

“I’m in favor of solar power, but I was opposed to the location,” said Jill Paul, who noted that her husband’s family has owned its summer camp on the point for a century. The family lives in Starksboro.

The fight against the project, she recalled, was “all-consuming” both in terms of time and emotions.

“There is only one way in to this beauty, this heavenly place,” she said. “It made me sad to think there would be something so big.”


No comments: