MANCHESTER — The Vermont Public Utilities Commission has yet to announce its decision about whether to allow a proposed solar panel array on Richville Road that would feed into the state’s electrical grid.
The hearing officer in the case has submitted a finding that the 500 kW group net-metered array should not be approved based on impacts to the aesthetics of the area.
“Based upon the certifications of the Applicant and the above findings, I recommend that the Commission conclude that the Project would have an undue adverse effect on aesthetics and should therefore be denied,” wrote attorney Jake Marren, the hearing officer for the case.
MHG Solar LLC applied for a certificate of public good to install and operate the solar electric generation facility.
Neighbors, however, opposed the plan.
The recommendation to the PUC is not final and the three-member panel does not have to accept the decision of the hearing officer.
Not everybody agrees with the recommendation and some have questioned the research and motivation that went into the decision.
Based on the comments included in the 43-page public filing, the PUC’s upcoming decision appears to be between Town Hall’s interpretation of its ordinances and some local residents — at least some of whom live across Richville Road from where it would be built.
“The question here is whether a handful of people who are very opposed to something happening on a private piece of land across the road from their house should have sway,” said Manchester Planning and Zoning Director Janet Hurley. “It’s a balancing act for the [commission]. And it seems like they’re looking for a way to make sure these noise-making people don’t remain on their doorstep. Looking for a way to say this [solar array] won’t happen.”
The Select Board and the town Planning Commission considered the proposal by the energy company MHG Solar in several public meetings each. Both ultimately recommended to the Public Utilities Commission that the project be approved.
The commission’s recommendation document notes that the solar panels would “offend the sensibilities of the average person.”
The author uses various criteria, as defined in commission rules or norms, to evaluate this statement. But despite the criteria, Hurley and the solar company are not convinced the evaluation is objective.
Whether this project will distort the mountain scene, as seen from Richville Road and points beyond, remains at issue. According to the recommendation by state utility commission staff, it’s the only real issue remaining after months of public debate.
The report by the state commission says that the “eastern, northeastern, and southeastern side of the Project array would be visible from public viewpoints along Richville Road. It is anticipated that approximately 10 residences or businesses near or adjacent to the Project site would have visibility of the Project.”
“We went back and forth with the petitioners for months to land at the final iteration of the design of the visual screening,” she said. “You won’t be able to see any solar panels from the road, and no view of the mountain (in the background) would be obstructed.”
This perspective is shared by MHG Solar, according to its president, Thomas Hand. Hand grew up in the area and located his company’s offices here — well before everything went remote during the pandemic, he said.
“The town and state has rules and regulations around development, just like if you were building a fence; building anything,” Hand said.
“We designed this around the regulations. You should not be able to see the project from the road” nor the houses across from it, he said.
The field in which the panels would be built is flat, whereas the mountains behind it are arguably what make the road a prime view. Solar project dissenters have raised the possibility of the planned tree cover not obscuring the panels in the winter.
Hand said, in an email, that “The screening was designed to function in both summer and winter. There are deciduous and conifers included, but obviously it will work more fully in the summer.”
A key point in the state utility commission staff’s objection is that “10 homes or businesses” of the 40 across the street would allegedly be able to see the panels through the proposed tree screening. But neither Hand nor Hurley understand how the commission staff member arrived at that conclusion. The report does not provide a citation for its claim and PUC staff did not return a call for comment.
The state utility commission’s recommendation document also references comments made by local solar dissenters about Richville Road’s place as an “important community gateway.” Hurley said this is a “misinterpretation” of the town plan.
“[The plan] says views in ‘gateways’ should be protected, but protected with a public process to discuss and debate screening, which we did,” she said.
According to Hand, the current owner of the 8-acre parcel in question knew about the plans for a solar array and still decided to give Hand’s company the option to buy it.
Hurley took pains to point out that several other uses could await the land, including multistory buildings, which could be fast-tracked into development under the town’s current rules, and the community might be afforded less input.