A controversial solar farm proposed in Charlotte has moved a step closer to reality.
A hearing officer for the Vermont Public Service Board is recommending the PSB give the go-ahead for the Charlotte Solar Farm, a 2.2-megawatt project that's tentatively slated for a field off Hinesburg Road in East Charlotte. As Seven Days reported in July, a group of six neighbors has fought hard to block the project, which they worry will affect property values and quality of life in their rural neighborhood.
Despite neighbors' concerns, hearing officer Jake Marren is recommending the PSB approve the project with a few small concessions, including a 10 percent reduction in the solar farm's footprint; solar panels will take up 15 acres. That recommendation came in the Proposal for Decision (download that document here) issued Sept. 4 and delivered to the town of Charlotte last Thursday.
The PSB is expected to issue a final ruling on the solar farm in a matter of weeks, says Andy Raubvogel, the attorney for the project developer, Massachusetts-based American Capital Energy . The property is owned by the trust of Clark Hinsdale Jr., whose son, Clark Hinsdale III, is working with the out-of-state developer. They're cautiously optimistic that Marren's recommendation will translate into a go-ahead from the full PSB.
"Just as a statistical matter, usually the proposals for decision are carefully done, and it’s quite unusual for them to be overturned," says Raubvogel.
If the project is approved, construction will likely begin this fall. In June, the Department of Public Service recommended the 10 percent reduction in footprint. It's not clear whether that would translate into fewer solar panels (current plants call for 8250) because Raubvogel says the developer might be able to "squeeze them in a little closer."
"We were glad to see that the hearing officer agreed with us that the project is one that can be compatible with the town and the town plan," says Raubvogel. "In general, Charlotte Solar wants to build a project that's going to be acceptable to Charlotte [and] acceptable to the neighbors. They’re looking to be a long-term good neighbor to the residents."
Marren's recommendation finds the solar farm to be consistent with both the Chittenden County Regional Plan and Charlotte's town plan — a point with which neighbors disagree. Elizabeth Bassett is one of a group of neighbors who hired an attorney to help fight the project. They're not opposed to renewable energy, she says, but feel strongly that a project of this size and scope doesn't fit with the rural, agricultural landscape of East Charlotte.
Bassett feels Marren's recommendation "makes a mockery [of] Vermont's laws and social compact," adding that "neither a Town Plan nor zoning bylaws nor community values, expressed in millions of dollars spent on conservation, protect a town and its homeowners in the face of the Public Service Board." In an email to Seven Days she said that the concept of "mitigation" for the project — such as setbacks, vegetative screening, and the slightly smaller footprint — "is a sop."
Will the PSB agree? For now, the neighbors and developer alike are left waiting on a final decision from the regulators.