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State OKs Winhall solar array

PSB approves construction of array, off Route 30

Erosion, aesthetics, decommissioning funding and the ongoing reproductive health of spotted salamanders all played a role in the final design of Vermont’s latest large-scale solar array.

The state Public Service Board has granted a certificate of public good for construction of a 2.2-megawatt photovoltaic facility off Route 30 in Bondville, a village in the town of Winhall.

The approval comes after the developer, Vermont Solar Farmers LLC, reached agreements with state environmental regulators and with residents near the proposed project.

“We’re pretty sensitive to Vermont issues ... the local issues, the state issues. That, for us, is a starting point,” said Will Jerome, Vermont Solar Farmers’ managing member. “The idea was to communicate as clearly as we could and address any issues.”

State documents say the planned solar array will spread over 13.5 acres of a 20.5-acre parcel off Gleason Hill Road at 219 VT Route 30. Vermont Solar Farmers has purchased the property.

The company in January applied for a state certificate of public good for the Bennington County project, but Bondville Solar Farm’s long road to approval stretches further back than that.

Winhall Planning Commission reportedly began reviewing the project in summer 2014, and a public meeting there last November featured residents’ concerns about runoff, noise, aesthetics, and other issues.

A flurry of paperwork followed the company’s January application, and two neighbors were granted limited party status in April. The Public Service Board’s hearing officer, Lynn Fabrizio, conducted site visits in March and June. A technical hearing was held in July at the board’s office in Montpelier.

Fabrizio eventually recommended that a certificate of public good be issued for the project, basing her conclusion in part on two memorandums of understanding reached with Vermont Solar Farmers.

One was between the developer and neighbors, a document that resolved a number of issues including access to the solar site: That will be via Black Cherry Ridge Road, and Vermont Solar Farmers agreed to use Gleason Hill Road — its original planned access point — “only to install and maintain the underground line to interconnect the project to [Green Mountain Power’s] distribution system,” documents show.

Vermont Solar Farmers even agreed to reconstruct a ditch that collects runoff in the area and to preserve a large evergreen tree on the road’s northwestern end. Subject to the terms of the memorandum being adopted as part of the developer’s certificate of public good, neighbors “stipulated that the project will not have an undue adverse effect on any of the criteria for which [they] have standing,” Fabrizio wrote.

In light of the settlement with residents and Vermont Solar Farmers’ other erosion-control plans, Fabrizio concluded that, “after completion of construction, there will be less runoff from the array area and less water discharging through neighboring properties than currently occurs.”

Impacts on wetlands

There also was a memorandum of understanding between Vermont Solar Farmers and the state Agency of Natural Resources, where officials had been concerned about the project’s potential impacts on a vernal pool habitat that supports reproduction of wood frogs and spotted salamanders.

“The project was designed to avoid the wetland and its associated 50-foot buffer zone,” Fabrizio’s report says. “To provide greater protection for the vernal pool, the undisturbed buffer will be expanded to encompass a 100-foot setback around the vernal pool.”

The developer’s agreement with ANR called for a biologist to conduct a careful, initial assessment of amphibian eggs in the pool; the detailed deal mandates the use of long-handled nets and polarized sunglasses during the egg search.

The company also agreed to allow ANR representatives to access the site so that they can “continue egg mass counts or document amphibian use of the vernal pool during the springs and summers of 2016-2021.”

Additionally, Vermont Solar Farmers will use a fence that “leaves at least a 6-inch gap at the bottom to allow amphibians to migrate to and from the vernal pool,” documents show.

Those weren’t the only changes made by the developer throughout the Bondville Solar permitting process. Vermont Solar Farmers “increased the project setback to the east as requested by the Winhall Planning Commission,” Fabrizio’s reports says.

The company also increased its decommissioning fund for Bondville Solar from $53,100 to $75,000 after Fabrizio raised concerns about the lower amount’s adequacy. Vermont Solar Farmers also agreed to cover any shortfall in the fund during decommissioning.

Aesthetic concerns — a common issue with sizable photovoltaic installations — also seem to have been handled via the permitting process.

Fabrizio says the Winhall Planning Commission found that, “given the location of the project and its limited visibility from area roads, as well as existing and proposed buffers,” the array will have “minimal impact” on the area from a visual standpoint.

“The project’s configuration and setbacks avoid visual impacts to neighboring landowners,” Fabrizio added. “Improvements to existing landscaping on the eastern boundary of the project will further screen neighboring properties where appropriate, and burying the interconnection line will decrease the visibility of the project.”

In spite of the planned array’s size, Jerome said, “we were trying to do a project that was not going to be in public view — it is going to be tucked away.”

Following Fabrizio’s recommendations, the Public Service Board on Oct. 9 issued a certificate of public good for Bondville Solar. The board’s order includes detailed references to Vermont Solar Farmers’ agreements with residents and with ANR.

Jerome said Vermont Solar Farmers will start construction as soon as possible after receiving final paperwork from the state.

“What we’re shooting for is a commercial operation date before the end of the year,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #329 (Wednesday, October 28, 2015). This story appeared on page D2.

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