Two activists behind the Public Service Board’s rejection of a solar farm last week say the unlikely outcome shows lawmakers must legislate local control of renewables.
In one of the rarest events in Vermont’s energy history, the Public Service Board on Feb. 16 denied certification of a 2-megawatt solar project planned for the town of Bennington.
The energy plant, Chelsea Solar, was one-half of a 4-megawatt, 27-acre solar array planned for a forested area east of U.S. Route 7, in the Apple Hill residential area.
Libby Harris, a retired school teacher and Apple Hill resident who was the sole citizen intervenor against the project, was surprised by the decision.
“We revved up all of these months feeling it was a lost cause, yet we were never going to stop,” she said.
While Harris’ written briefs about the project’s adverse effect on aesthetics didn’t control the board’s ruling, her decision to attach a segment of Bennington’s town plan to her comments led to the board’s rejection.
“By being the sole intervenor and having the long history of appearing there and keeping it alive and viable, I credit myself for my persistence and tenacity,” Harris said.
According to the board’s denial, the “Quechee test” requires that new development conform to a clearly written community standard intended to preserve an area’s scenic beauty and aesthetics. Bennington lawyers fighting the Apple Hill Solar half of the project wanted the test applied in their case, and Harris borrowed their work and inserted it into the record for the Chelsea Solar docket.
The board respected Bennington’s town plan, which listed the site as a rural conservation district, and denied Chelsea Solar’s petition for a certificate of public good.
“(The board) gave a nod to me, but I think it would have been turned down had they not had the weight of the very thorough Bennington town plan, (which was) presented in its entirety and made part of the public record when I made it part of my comment,” Harris said.
Throughout the case, Harris received harsh criticism from the developers, Thomas and Michael Melone. The father-son team own New York-based Allco Renewable Energy, a firm that was an early investor in SunEdison, a $2.5 billion publicly traded solar company. Allco is the parent of Chelsea Solar and Apple Hill Solar.
In their Aug. 12 petitioner’s reply brief , Michael Melone disparages Harris as a “lone wolf” objector and dismisses her worries as “NIMBY concerns.” Yet in 2010, Thomas Melone tried to block the Cape Wind offshore wind project sited in Nantucket Sound over similar aesthetic concerns — namely, the giant turbines would stand in view of his summer home on Martha’s Vineyard.
But last week, the PSB vindicated Harris’ cause. The 63-page decision comes after almost two years of bureaucratic filings, an initial denial of a standard offer contract, a state Supreme Court ruling, motions to intervene, comment periods, lengthy briefs and a splitting of the project in two.
Despite the victory, Harris says the ruling shows that lawmakers must rein in the PSB. The three-member quasi-judicial panel has been criticized for rubber-stamping solar and wind projects over the objections of towns and residents.
“The board’s decision making power — the way they’ve had unilateral power over decision making — that is the most important thing (that needs to change),” Harris said. “The decision here is fabulous, but I really think the next fight is to help the state of Vermont see that this method has not been fair to the little people, or fair to towns, and we need a better venue to take a measured look.”
Annette Smith, whose group, Vermonters for a Clean Environment, guided Harris through the complex procedural maze of the PSB, said last week’s ruling offers little hope to other towns.
“I am concerned the decision is going to be used by people in power to say, ‘See, the Public Service Board process is changing and working.’ It could not be further from the truth,” she said.
“There’s some question about whether this was actually a political decision — whether, for instance, one of the senators from Bennington went to the governor and said, ‘Kill this thing.'”
According to Smith, state Rep. Tony Klein, chair of the House Energy Committee, sent a letter in the fall advising the PSB to turn down some projects. Without a clear legislative mandate, Smith says towns can’t expect to achieve the same results as Bennington.
“I don’t know exactly why they denied it. Honestly, I think they could have approved it based on the same town plan language,” she said, pointing to the arbitrary nature of the ruling.
The Melones may have known about the decision in advance. In the past month, the businessmen purchased a 71-acre parcel in Bennington, a possible sign that the developer knew a rejection was coming, Smith said.
The Melones did not return Watchdog’s request for comment.
“In any case, it is an extraordinarily high bar for any town to meet, to have to include in your town plan, prospectively, language that is specific to a site — not just the area; it has to be the site,” Smith said.
Defining sensitive sites to protect against solar and wind projects could take years, and nothing in statute requires the PSB to follow those plans. And with Vermont’s goal to be 90 percent renewable by 2050, Harris says no town is safe from bad siting.
“(Having) that as their goal allowed the Legislature to steamroll a lot of bad sitings and poor decisions,” she said. “I think if this decision is an open door to take a better look at how this process has been rushed through, and take a measured look at how can we really retain the pristine beauty of Vermont … that would be the greater victory for me.
Contact Bruce Parker at [email protected]