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Shaftsbury Eyes Ordinance on the Visual Impact of Solar Projects

Posted: January 7, 2024


SHAFTSBURY - Members of the Shaftsbury Select Board heard about and discussed a proposed solar project screening ordinance this week.

The purpose is to evaluate the visual impact of projects, not to accept or reject the overall projects themselves.

Board member Naomi Miller said the proposed ordinance is related to the development of an enhanced energy plan.

"And one of the things that people were particularly vocal about wanting to see happen was screening, a screening ordinance, a screening something to be put in place," she said. "And what the planning commission learned was that nothing about screening has real standing with the (Vermont Public Utility Commission) unless it's a town ordinance. That's why Bennington and other places have such an ordinance.

"So, we have proposed this ordinance, which is fairly boilerplate in many ways, drawn from a lot of other towns' ordinances. It talks about requiring these screening things to be done on all solar facilities with a production capacity over 60 kilowatts, which functionally means one acre," Miller said. "We're saying that in addition to the setbacks, etc., that would be in place with this design anyway - if somebody is proposing a solar project of any kind in which the solar panels take up more than one acre it would activate this ordinance."

A 20 megawatt solar farm is being proposed for 83 acres on four contiguous parcels west of U.S. Route 7 and south of Holy Smoke Road. Shaftsbury Solar, which was proposed in 2022 by VT Real Estate Holdings 1 LLC and formally submitted to the PUC in May 2023, has generated considerable opposition and the formation of the group, Stop Shaftsbury Solar.

According to the PUC website, checked Friday, the project's application for a certificate of public good remains open.

Once in place, the PUC would use the ordinance in the evaluation of proposed projects in Shaftsbury. "If the PUC is actually approving such a thing, this is what Shaftsbury says the PUC has to require as physical screening to make it invisible – or less visible," Miller said.

"We propose that a panel be formed each and every time this comes up, and then it be called to order and formed by the Select Board, drawn from one person from the recreation committee, one from the development review board, one from the economic development committee, one from the trustees of public funds and one justice of the peace. And that they stand in for the common person," she said.

"So that sort of gets past all of the quibbling that can hold up a small little solar project in the town, and so that's what we've put together here," Miller said. "And we didn't want the Select Board to have to be struck mediating each and every one of those things, of which there may be many in ensuing years."

THE QUECHEE TEST
The ordinance proposes that then members of the ad hoc evaluation committee use the so-called Quechee Test/ Analysis to determine what the average person would find offensive.

"We got very deep into some language and trying to figure out how we could put the ordinary citizen perspective in because it's something that is factored into how the PUC makes their determinations," said board member Martha Cornwell. "And so this was the most egalitarian way we could think of."

Board President Art Whitman asked if projects would have to be completely hidden.

"A visual screen doesn't necessarily mean entirely invisible," Miller said. "I think that needs to be clarified. Because that would be probably in some cases impossible. In fact, possibly in most cases it would be absolutely impossible."

Miller said the ordinance makes it the Select Board's responsibility to make sure an evaluation board is formed and goes through the process, but the Selectmen do not do the evaluation themselves. She ran the proposed ordinance by the town attorney and it passes legal muster, she added.

Board member Michael Cichanowski asked if there should be a time limit: 30, 60 or 90 days to report back. "I guess I wouldn't want to see that panel used as a tool to stop the process or hold up the PUC process. So, from the time they're convened there should be some deadline for them to produce their results."

The board agreed to require a 90-day limit on the ad hoc committee's work. The committee would make a decision about the adequacy of the screening proposed by the developer but would not be expected to have the expertise of landscape architects.

"In all of the things we're doing on the enhanced energy plan work, what we've been trying to do is to reach a middle ground, and this town is so way divided that reaching the middle ground has consistently been something that we know is going to please no one," Miller said. "Because there's nobody in the middle."

The ordinance will be introduced in its final form at the next Select Board meeting, "and then we'll start the ordinance procedure and have a public hearing on it," said Town Manager David Kiernan.

Compliments of: The Bennington Banner
Posted/Author: Mark Rondeau

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