BENNINGTON — Many concerns were expressed at a Select Board meeting Monday over the preliminary proposal for a 50-acre solar facility to be built behind Home Depot.
The project, on paper at least, is actually three projects collectively dubbed the "Battle Creek Solar Project." The company behind it is Otter Creek LLC, a subsidiary of Allco Renewable Energy Limited, the same developer behind the controversial Apple Hill and Chelsea Hill solar projects proposed east of the Route 279 interchange.
Brad Wilson, of Ecos Energy, which provides project services Allco Renewables, spoke to the Select Board Monday, explaining the project and soliciting feedback from the board as well as citizens.
"I have very little detail to share with you tonight, and that's because there isn't any detail yet," said Wilson. "We are here at a very, very early stage of project design and project planning."
To be built in Vermont, solar projects must receive a "certificate of public good" from the Vermont Public Service Board. Before filing for a certificate, a developer must notify the town and abutting landowners of its intent to file 45 days ahead of time.
Wilson said that Otter Creek can not file for a certificate prior to May 24.
"That is not going to happen," he said. "We are nowhere near being in a position to file an application on the 24th, it is going to be months after that."
Wilson said Otter Creek wishes to engage the town and neighbors early on so it can design a project the community will support. He said that Otter Creek can file with the PSB for a scaled down version of what is in the 45-day notice, but it could not file for a larger one. He said at the meeting that already it appears that some of what has been planned will not be feasible, owing to the impacts on views from commercial properties on Harwood Hill such as the Harwood Hill Hotel and the Publyk House.
There are actually three Battle Creek Solar Projects. The two larger ones, 28-acres and 15-acres, are south of Rice Lane. The six-acre one, which for the board appeared to be the most problematic, is north of Rice Lane and abuts Harwood Hill Road.
The land these three projects are being proposed on sits on 76-acres of undeveloped property, now owned by Otter Creek. It's mostly forested with some wetlands, there's a railroad track running through it, and while most of it is zoned industrial, about 30 percent is zoned rural-residential. Some of the solar projects fall within the latter, which was a major concern for Select Board members, the public, and town officials.
In response to questions from the board, Wilson said the PSB would require Otter Creek to set aside funds in an escrow account to pay for decommission should the project need to be removed. He said the estimated useful life of the equipment is 45 years. He said the project will avoid the wetland portion of the parcel, which turned out to be more expansive that Otter Creek thought when it first drew up maps for the site.
Before being built, the project would need a stormwater permit from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.
The power it produces would be sold to Green Mountain Power and used within the area.
Wilson also provided maps showing on the parcel where "prime agricultural" lands had been identified. He said solar projects such as these do not harm such lands, and that the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets agrees.
Still, it appeared that large portions of the project as proposed will face significant hurdles when it comes to complying with the Bennington Town Plan, which limits the size of such facilities to 10 acres outside of "preferred areas."
"I would dare say that if this entire project was in the industrial zone, you probably would get a standing ovation," said Town Manager Stuart Hurd. "Unfortunately it's not. I think the comments made earlier about sections three and two really, from my perspective, need to be taken seriously. Your plan really does impact, extremely negatively, the whole visual aspect."
Wilson said that Otter Creek would like to solidify the "top-down" plans before commissioning detailed studies and visual simulations of how the project would look from different vantage points. Board member Jim Carroll said the developer should rethink that approach and get more detail sooner.
"I just think we're way premature on that," said Wilson. "We're hearing some commentary tonight that we can take back and take a look at options for redesign. What we're hearing, without the simulations, I'm hearing tonight that this site plan doesn't cut it, so there's no need to do the simulations."
He said the plan is to have several talks with the town and project neighbors to see what's acceptable and where common ground can be found.
Joseph Krawczyk, a long-time resident of Rice Lane, former Select Board chairman, and State House representative who served on the House Natural Resource Committee, read from a prepared statement saying this site was not appropriate for such a project, citing a host of concerns ranging from the impact on views, to water quality.
At the end of the discussion, the board voted to send the minutes of the meeting, along with Krawczyk's statements, to the PSB.
Wilson said the 45-day filings can be found online at https://ecosenergy.app.box.com/s/8685lzyvujv5aonbzveurw7q0pdz82dt
— Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at 802-447-7567 Ext. 115