Solar trackers behind Dubois Dr.

Solar Installation Meets Opposition: Commission, Committees and Council Weigh In

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Thursday April 25, 2013

As early as this fall, residents in the Southeast Quadrant may be sharing a space with a quiet--yet large--neighbor: a 366 tracker solar farm. Claire Solar Partners, LLC presented the application for 1545 Hinesburg Road, south of Butler Farms and east of the Cider Mill residential development, at a City Council public hearing on April 15. However, renewable energy facility applications are not subject to municipal zoning and could therefore be approved by the Public Service Board--regardless of public comment.

Despite the application’s immunity to city zoning regulations, representatives from the Planning Commission, Natural Resources Committee, SB Land Trust, Energy Committee, Recreation and Leisure Arts Committee, and members of the public were all ready to weigh in on the project. Claire Solar was represented by Project Manager Patrick Michael, Project Developer Joe Larkin, Attorney Geoffrey Hand of Dunkiel Saunders, and Doug Goldsmith of AllEarth Renewables.

Last August, Claire Solar Partners, LLC submitted a 45-day notice package to the city and the Regional Planning Commission. In accordance with Section 248 of Title 30, they filed an application with the Public Service Board for a Certificate of Public Good to build a 2.2 MW electric generation facility consisting of 366 Vermont-manufactured dual axis solar trackers; each tracker would include a pole mounted base and 24 photovoltaic (PV) panels. It would cover approximately 20 acres of the site which is currently a mono-crop (corn) agricultural space. The project would produce over 3 million kWh of energy a year--enough to power up to 400 homes. It would help contribute to the 236 million kWh electricity the City uses each year, Hand said.

The proposed facility would be developed under the state’s Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development (SPEED) standard-offer program.

After receiving written feedback from a number of groups such as the South Burlington Planning Commission, there have been modifications made to try to address the concerns. A seven foot high chain link fence has been removed from the plan. The development plan now shows vegetative buffers and a natural planting plan designed to facilitate wildlife passage. The new design also proposes a $100,000-plus planting plan that will screen views of the project.

Renewable energy projects such as the proposed Claire Solar Farm are not subject to zoning, so the city’s Land Development Regulations are not necessarily considered in the Public Service Board’s decision. However, the public is permitted to provide comments to the applicant and to the Public Service Board. Citizens and boards of South Burlington took full advantage of the freedom to comment.

Planning Commission Chair Jessica Louisos was first to the table.

“The majority position is that we are still not in support of the application; we found that it is not consistent with our city’s policies for land development and in specific in this particular area on this particular parcel,” she said.

Louisos’ statement and the Planning Commission stance is in reference to the Planning Commission public hearing held on September 11th, and site visits on September 17th to the proposed site and the completed solar installation on Dubois Dr.; Commissioners came to a general consensus that the unfavorable location deemed the application unsuitable for South Burlington.

Commissioners are advocates of renewable energy, however, building an energy site entirely within the Natural Resources Protection District did not sit well with the majority. Therefore, in September, Commissioners voiced their opinion against the project and provided a list of suggestions in the event that the site is built anyway.

Some of those suggestions were reflected in Hand’s recent presentation, and Louisos added that they could widen the wildlife corridor by relocating some of the trackers. The Commission would like to have a city-wide energy policy to help guide these decisions in the future, she said.

Of the seven members, five were against the project, one was in favor, and one abstained.

Laurel Williams, Interim Chair of the Natural Resources Committee, said her committee voted unanimously in opposition.

“South Burlington has contributed more per capita in Vermont for renewable energy,” she said. “I personally believe that the only reason renewable installations were not expressly prohibited by city planning and zoning in these districts is that they did not become prevalent until quite recently.”

Williams continued, “If this site is open for business so is every prime green space in South Burlington.”

Animals that pass through this corridor have a large home range and need to maintain sustainable genetic pools and breeding populations to survive. Based on wildlife tracking systems, animals need to respond to factors such as food availability and climate change, she said.

“We don’t know how they will respond to the solar tracker meadow,” Williams said.

The Energy Committee respects the Natural Resource Protection of the land, but feels differently about the project’s potential, Energy Committee Chair Don Cummings said. Energy Committee  members voted unanimously in favor of the project.

“We observed that construction of a solar tracker facility that includes a carefully designed, naturalistic landscape plan will better serve the protection objectives with this land than other allowed uses such as commercial agriculture, housing, or recreation facilities,” Cummings said.

Glenn Sproul, president of the Recreation and Leisure Arts Committee, expressed a different view of Cummings’ statement about the potential of recreation facilities on the space.

“We were hoping that there might be a significant park created on that site,” he said. “The Rec Committee definitely supports the development of solar and other renewable sources of energy and understands that land that looks prime for a park is also prime for other purposes including solar and conservation and housing.”

SB Land Trust president Sarah Dopp said the majority of the SBLT stands by the Planning Commission and Natural Resource Committee’s view. SB Land Trust also sent a letter to the applicant in the fall regarding the location.

“We lost an opportunity for studying the effects of solar installations on wildlife by not setting up a research project potentially with UVM when the Dubois project was installed,” Dopp said. “If this goes forward, I hope that we would pursue that kind of academic project.”

Dopp and Williams said that even after the trackers’ 25 year life, chances of it returning to an open National Resource Protection (NRP) space are slim and will likely be replaced by a new renewable project.

Design Review Board member Tim Barritt was among the last to provide additional comment to the applicant. Barritt stressed that existing LDRs were created with a strong planning purpose, and Council should be clear to the PSB about what it would mean for South Burlington if they’re ignored.

The hearing concluded with a few remarks from Hand, on behalf of Claire Solar.  Having no fence will be an explicit condition, he said. Claire Solar has consulted with experts such as Jeff Parsons of Arrowwood Environmental about the impact of wildlife and concluded that the project with this design is better than the existing cornfield.

“It gives you an opportunity to plan forward for what the community might actually want here,” Hand said. “The developer here will be required to put money into a fund to completely commission this facility at some point.”

Mackenzie thanked everyone for their time and Councilors--who are officially in intervenor status--were left with a conundrum.

Pat Nowak found the process to be particularly troubling.

“The local participation really could be ignored,” Nowak said. “who protects the people of South Burlington from having something adverse happening moving forward?”

Councilors recognized that the city’s requests may be ignored, but after careful discussion, they all agreed that they need to send a message. All are in favor of renewable energy but find potential problems with the location. Therefore, Council agreed to have new Interim City Manager Kevin Dorn and Director of Planning and Zoning Paul Conner draft a letter to send to the Public Service Board. A PSB site visit and public hearing was scheduled for April 24 followed by a PSB technical hearing on June 13. If Claire Solar is granted a Certificate of Public Good, construction is anticipated for begin this fall.

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent