Board seeks details on massive solar project

Thursday June 27, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- The Selectboard is pretty sure there is widespread support for solar power in Brattleboro, in general.

Over the past few years homeowners, businesses and schools across Brattleboro have all decided to make an investment in solar power. The town has even committed itself to seeking out a solar project to help power some of its municipal facilities. But whether or not Brattleboro is ready to support what would be one of the largest solar arrays in the state is another matter, and the Selectboard wants to hear what the public thinks before the town takes a formal stance on the proposed project.

Winstanley Enterprises wants to build a two-megawatt solar farm on its land along Interstate 91 just north of the West River near the Holiday Inn Express. Developers hope to get a Certificate of Public Good from the Vermont Public Service Board to install approximately 8,316 solar panels on 1,040 posts.

The Selectboard has invited representatives from Winstanley to its July 2 meeting to get more information on the project, and Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein said the board is also hoping to hear from the public before the board decides how it wants to represent the town before the PSB during the permit hearing.

"What is being proposed is a large-scale, industrial solar array, located directly next to the highway," Gartenstein told the Reformer Wednesday. "Based on the initial plans there is a possibility that it would substantially impact the viewshed for both northbound and southbound traffic and the board feels like the public might be concerned about the impact such a development would have on such a highly visible area in the gateway of Vermont."

Under Vermont law developers of large-scale energy projects must contact the town and the regional planning commission 45 days before filing the application. The town can waive its right to comment during the 45-day period but the board at its last meeting voted not to waive that right. With that vote Winstanley has to wait until at least July 18 to file its application with the PSB.

Gartenstein stressed that the Selectboard has not taken a vote yet on the project. The decision is ultimately up to the PSB, but the town’s support, or objection, to the project will be considered during the PSB deliberation.

Gartenstein said he wants to get as much information from Winstanley, and from Brattleboro citizens, before asking the board to make a decision on the project.

"Although we support solar power and green energy projects there is a possibility that the public will be concerned about a project like this," Gartenstein said. "We want the public to comment and weigh in. In a project like this there is substantial tension between the generation of renewable energy and the impact on the viewshed."

Winstanley has proposed other projects for the site, including an industrial park and a new YMCA.

Winstanley Vice President Eric Nelson said the company thinks the solar array is the right project for the property at this time.

"This site is a good size, it’s flat, there are no trees and we think it helps the state meet its goal of increasing the amount of clean, renewable power produced in Vermont," Nelson said.

Developers are aware of the impact the project will have on the view, but Nelson says there are those who would view an industrial solar project as an appropriate introduction to the Green Mountain State.

"We are aware of the aesthetic concerns and we will address that in the CPG process to make sure it is met to everyone’s satisfaction," Nelson said. "We believe in sustainable power and we think this could be seen as a nice welcome to Vermont."

Nelson also said consultants do not think the glare will be a concern for drivers on the interstate.

According to a letter sent to the town and to the Windham Regional Commission, drivers on the Interstate will only be able to see the project for about 15 seconds, while driving along approximately one-quarter mile of the highway.

"It is not anticipated that the project will be readily visible from the nearby residential homes, delineated scenic viewshed, commercial areas, Route 9, downtown Brattleboro or the nearby West River Park," Adam Winstanley said in the letter. "Although a further evaluation of the project surroundings may result in the recommendation for appropriate vegetative screenings, the project’s aesthetic consultant has concluded that the project will not result in undue adverse visual impacts."

Brattleboro Town Planner Sue Fillion said the town’s comments to the PSB must be in made in relation to its town plan. According to Fillion the Town Plan designates some parts of town as scenic areas, but the Winstanley property is not designated as a scenic area. The site is considered prime agricultural land, and the Town Plan cautions against developing such land.

The Town Plan also highlights the town’s commitment to renewable energy, but at the same time it recognizes that large-scale energy projects can adversely affect nearby properties.

The Brattleboro Conservation Commission discussed the proposed project at its meeting Tuesday night. Conservation commission Co-Chairman Peter Gaskill said that while the commission has not formally voted on the project, the members also have concerns and questions about the solar array.

Gaskill said the commission is looking for greater details on how the project will fit in with the area, what materials will be used for the posts and what the ultimate design will be. The Conservation Commission can only make recommendations to the board and he said the commission will most likely put together a letter on the proposed solar array.

"There are two trains of thought on the board," said Gaskill. "At first blush we were not crazy about plopping such a large solar array right there, but we recognize that in Vermont it is a state priority to support this type of project. We just need more information before we go forward."

The July 2 Brattleboro Selectboard meeting starts at 6:15 p.m. and is scheduled to be held in the Selectboard meeting room in Town Hall.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.


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