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Clouded future for solar panels?

Guilford learns about its rights, responsibilities in ‘an unusual case’

GUILFORD—The Selectboard recently learned more about its rights and responsibilities regarding the Kirchheimer Drive solar array.

At the June 11 regular Board meeting, Town Administrator Peder Rude explained the results of his research on the Public Utilities Commission’s process for issuing Certificates of Public Good.

Rude’s work came at the request of the Board. They had questions about what, if anything, they should do about the application for 500-kW solar array located on Will Wohnus’s property, leased by Dummerston-based Soveren Solar. The array went online in October 2016.

At the May 14 Selectboard meeting, residents Tammy Sargent and Nick Junjulas — whose properties abut the parcel — notified the Board that Soveren Solar had failed to notify them of changes to the project during the comment period before its construction.

Shortly before Soveren began building the solar project, another neighbor, Jane Krochmalny, asked company officials to move the array so it would be less visible from her property.

Soveren complied, but never filed an amendment to its CPG. Company owner Peter Thurrell told the commission he didn’t deem the changes substantial enough to file an amendment or send an additional 45-day notice.

The commission disagreed, and in March they found Soveren violated regulations on providing notice to neighbors. The commission fined the company $5,000 and told Soveren to file an amendment to its CPG.

If the PUC denied Soveren’s application, the company could lose its CPG, which would likely require the array’s decommissioning.

Soveren’s original deadline for filing an amendment of its CPG was June 15, but The Commons learned the commission granted Soveren’s request for a one-month extension.

With the amendment comes another 45-day period for public comment.

The 45-day notice for a CPG application allows certain parties time to comment on the proposed project. One of those parties is a town’s Selectboard. Sargent and Junjulas asked the Board to comment on the CPG application.

What the Board had to decide was if they should comment, and if so, what they should say. A concern raised by some Selectboard members, and Thurrell, is whether the project is in the public good.

Thurrell’s argument is that the complainants are private landowners and the array serves thousands of individuals through a contract Soveren has with the Vermont State Employees Credit Union. The credit union receives enough net-metering credits from the array to power all of its branches.

At the June 11 Selectboard meeting, Gabriella Ciufredda, who was leading the meeting in Board Chair Sheila Morse’s absence, confirmed the Board received the 45-day notice about Soveren’s CPG amendment.

“Whether it was properly served — because we didn’t receive it in the mail — is unclear,” said Ciufredda. “But we did receive it,” she said.

Rude noted the two parties, abutters Sargent and Junjulas, and Soveren, the developer, “have differing opinions on what the Selectboard should do.”

What Rude learned from the commission clerk is that until Soveren files the application, the town won’t see the amendment. All the town received, he said, is notice Soveren intends to file.

“What that amendment is, we’ve heard speculation,” Rude said, “and until it’s actually filed with the PUC, we don’t know what the facts of that amendment are,” he added.

So, until July 15, there’s nothing on which the Board can comment.

Once Soveren files the amendment, then “if the Selectboard feels [Soveren’s] amendment is not within the public good, then the Selectboard can submit [...] a Notice of Intervention,” said Rude, who noted, “it’s given much more weight than public comment.”

Rude pointed out anyone can submit a public comment and say anything they want about it, but not so the Selectboard.

What the Selectboard cannot do is base their comment on “things that happened in the past,” including the complaints the abutting neighbors made at the May Selectboard meeting, Rude said. Those, he said, “have been adjudicated by the PUC and unfortunately isn’t the topic of the current amendment."

Selectboard member Richard Winzansky and Ciufredda agreed, and noted the abutters “had their day in court.” Even if the process was satisfactory, the process on the amendment still has to move forward, and the content should be judged on its own merits, Board members said.

Cuifredda acknowledged “this is a really unusual case.” In asking Soveren to file an amendment to its CPG for the solar array, “the PUC is treating it like it’s not built.”

Board member Verandah Porche noted the lack of clarity in guidance the Selectboard has in deciding whether to issue a comment on Soveren’s CPG amendment, and what they should say.

“Since we have no [zoning] regulation in our town,” said Porche, to make a decision, “we would rely on hypothetical neighborliness and best practices, which are undefined.”

Ciufredda agreed that is true, and it’s a discussion worth having in the future.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #465 (Wednesday, June 27, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.

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