BENNINGTON, Vt. — Two controversial solar projects are threatening the community’s rural landscape in areas designated in the town plan as unsuitable for commercial development.
In 2016, the Public Service Board (now the Public Utilities Commission) set a precedent when it ruled against a big renewable energy project, Chelsea Solar, on the basis that it didn’t conform with the town plan. Developer Allco Renewables, based in New York City, has since appealed the decision all the way up to the state’s Supreme Court.
On Aug. 14 town council Rob Woolmington advised the Selectboard to continue to oppose Chelsea Solar, but he also recommended that they not use the town plan to oppose the Apple Hill Solar Project, which would go adjacent to the Chelsea site.
“The changes they made address the issues raised by the town,” Woolmington told True North of the Apple Hill proposal.
The original 2-megawatt Chelsea proposal had called for cutting 10.6 acres of forest over a 27-acre parcel. The Apple Hill project is supposed to have reduced impact on the local community, including more efficient panels and more surrounding vegetation.
Critics say the new proposal seems like a “bait-and-switch” tactic.
“They come in scaring you with a mega project, I’m sure knowing full-well that they don’t even intend to do that. Then they say, ‘Help us understand what you would want,’” local resident Lora Block told True North.
Block has been active against the solar projects as a member of the community-based Apple Hill Association. She said that about two months ago Allco made an offer to the town that left a bad impression.
“What they said publicly was (they would give the town) $200,000 in return for not apposing what they were presenting that night, which was a revision of both Chelsea Solar and Apple Hill,” Block said. “Right now that’s off the table, but certainly it created uproar here in town because nobody wanted the Selectboard to take the money.”
Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said Woolmington’s recommendation to drop fighting Apple Hill on the basis that it violates the town plan is an odd strategy.
“What nobody understands is why the town attorney is giving the advice he’s giving about dropping their objection to Apple Hill because it’s not in compliance with the town plan, when Apple Hill still is in the rural conservation district and still is in an area that does not allow for the clearing of vegetation or for commercial projects,” she said.
Smith said it’s a good thing for the town not to fight Apple Hill anymore on the basis that it’s sucking away the town’s money.
“The case will proceed at the PUC, and Libby Harris (a local resident to Apple Hill) will continue as an intervener, and the Department of Public Service will continue to litigate it. And they will quite likely be using the Chelsea decision to support a similar decision on Apple Hill, as it doesn’t comply with the town plan.”
Smith said the fact that there have already been some solar projects approved in conservation districts does not make it OK for more.
“What this means for the town’s people, and some of the folks in Bennington (who) have been saying this, is, we have to pay more attention to these solar projects that come in.”
A subcommittee of Bennington’s Planning Commission has developed a map of preferred sites for solar which does not include the sites proposed by Allco. However, it hasn’t yet been adopted by the Regional Planning Commission.
The Bennington County Regional Commission has adopted an energy plan — which has been certified by the Department of Public Service — which does include the sites proposed by Allco.
Both maps are part of Vermont’s 2016 energy siting law, Act 174, which is supposed to make energy siting more of a localized process with more power going towards the communities.
Once the town’s map is adopted, it will be considered by the PUC alongside the regional plan. However, Smith said it is not clear which one takes priority.
Block said another concern is that Allco has bought about 70 acres in a rural Bennington residential district. She said for the town to give up using its town plan to challenge Apple Hill could set bad precedent, especially if more proposals are looming.
Block also noted that Allco is no stranger to stirring controversy.
“They are a mega company with a huge Wall Street address,” she said. “They are always in litigation around the country; tthey are always suing everybody to get what they want.
Allco representatives did not respond to True North’s request for comment.