Wind turbines are enormous and damage fragile ecosystems. Wood-fired biomass plants gobble up forests and belch out particulate pollution. So say opponents of these controversial sources of renewable energy.
But solar? What’s not to like about innocuous-seeming panels that are increasingly cropping up on rooftops — and in empty fields — across Vermont?
Ask the residents of East Charlotte, some of whom are fighting the Charlotte Solar Farm proposed for a 46-acre field off Hinesburg Road. Citing concerns about “view sheds” and property values, opponents to the energy development say the project conflicts with the rural character of their neighborhood. They say Charlotte’s views are a “public good” and that the solar project isn’t in keeping with the town’s thoughtful town plan or zoning regulations — a charge consistent with the planning commission’s own strongly worded statement of objection to the development.
In previous cases, adjoining landowners have reached settlements with developers, or independently opposed the developments to the state Public Service Board, which ultimately decides which energy projects go where. But in this one, six Charlotte residents have organized, pooled resources and hired attorney William Ellis and landscape architect David Raphael to make their case in hearings before the PSB.
It suggests that solar can be just as objectionable to neighbors as wind or biomass — at least in Charlotte, which has gone to greater lengths than most towns to preserve its picturesque appearance. In 1996, the town raised taxes by 2 cents to fund conservation projects. Unlike its neighbors to the north and south, Charlotte also conscientiously blocked commercial development along the Route 7 strip.
Steve Colvin, who lives adjacent to the field, notes the solar array’s 15-acre footprint would be equivalent to 2000 parked cars, 13 football fields or the parking lot at Home Depot in Williston.
“This massive commercial facility has no business where it’s being proposed,” says Colvin, one of the gang of six whose family has lived in a charming yellow farmhouse on Hinesburg Road since 2007. “It’s no different than if someone were to put a Walmart behind our house … It changes the whole view … I think this forever changes the character of this little section of Charlotte.”
The Charlotte Solar Farm would be located about a half mile west of the intersection of Hinesburg Road and Spear Street. The narrow end of the rectangular, tree-lined pasture butts up to the road; blink, if you’re soaring down Hinesburg Road at a clip, and you might miss it.
The property is owned by the trust of Clark Hinsdale Jr., whose son, Clark Hinsdale III, is working with an out-of-state developer — Massachusetts-based American Capital Energy — to build the solar project. Andy Raubvogel, the attorney representing the developer, says the site is ideal: The south-facing field, primed to soak up the sun’s rays, is located close to an electrical line that can accommodate transmission, he says. In energy-hungry Chittenden County, it makes “perfect sense,” Raubvogel says.
“You can’t hide a project of that size, that’s clear,” he admits. But he says that on the whole that project wouldn’t be “highly visible” — and promises that appropriate landscaping after construction would “soften” the view.
The field is zoned rural, which town planner Dean Bloch says usually calls for a mix of agricultural and residential land; the solar farm is considered a “commercial” use. The 2.2-megawatt project would consist of roughly 8250 panels — twice the size of the solar array located off Route 7 in Ferrisburgh. Although the original plan put the solar array as close as 30 yards from Colvin’s house, a subsequent agreement between the developer and the town of Charlotte pushed the project farther away in the field.
The town’s part of that “agreement”? To stay out of the PSB proceedings, which selectmen estimated could cost the town as much as $80,000. Selectmen had already doled out about $15,000 for legal fees and a landscape consultant’s work.
Charlotte resident Elizabeth Bassett is contributing to the solar-farm fight because she’s irked that towns such as Charlotte exert so little control over where it winds up.
“There’s a certain feeling in Vermont that we should all be on board” with renewable energy, Bassett says, which she contends makes it hard for some officials in Charlotte to speak up against the project. Bassett drives a Prius and has solar panels at her home, which is about a mile from the field. But she feels the Charlotte Solar Farm developers are running “roughshod” over the wishes of the neighbors, and the town.
Projects regulated by the Public Service Board are technically exempt from local zoning regulations, but the body is supposed to consider “town plans” in its deliberations. Charlotte last updated its town plan in 2008 and its land use and zoning regulations in 2010 — and at the time, Bloch says, “a project of this type wasn’t really on the radar.”
As it stands, the document doesn’t explicitly forbid the construction of a solar farm in its “rural areas.” Nor does it officially designate the parcel for future development as “the village of East Charlotte” — something the town has considered previously, and which some residents think would be a better use of the land.
Carrie Spear, who owns Spear’s Corner Store in East Charlotte, says she’s come to believe that the land should be a site for future housing. “It’s not in my backyard, but it’s in my neighborhood,” Spear says. Solar, she argues, “does nothing for the village of East Charlotte.”
As Charlotte continues to revise its town plan — a process now under way — Bloch imagines that more unequivocal language about future development will find its way into the next version. In general, Bloch says, the town is supportive of renewable energy. Would it be overly restrictive to limit projects like the Charlotte Solar Farm to areas zoned for light commercial development?
“We haven’t quite figured that out yet,” Bloch answers.
No matter what the language, Bloch admits that it’s difficult to write protective rules in response to anticipated future development — the exact size, scope and location of which are nearly impossible to predict.
The Charlotte Solar Farm is being proposed under a state subsidy program known as SPEED — the Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development Plan. The legislature enacted the program to encourage the development of new renewable power sources, which lawmakers hope will constitute 20 percent of Vermont’s electric retail sales by 2017. The seven-year-old program guarantees renewable power producers higher prices for the electricity they generate — and long-term contracts — for projects up to 2.2 megawatts in size.
The incentive has worked well — so well, in fact, that the state had to run a lottery to determine which projects would be built. The Charlotte Solar Farm ended up on the waiting list, but secured approval after some other proposed projects fizzled. The SPEED designation will guarantee a retail energy price of 24 cents per kilowatt-hour — about 10 cents higher than market rate — but relocating to a different site or parcel, as neighbors would prefer, isn’t allowed under the program.
The PSB will likely decide later this summer whether to award a certificate of public good that would allow construction to move forward. It has already approved at least a half-dozen solar projects of a similar size throughout the state.