Losing hearts and minds

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If the developer behind several large solar projects being proposed in Bennington is looking to win over local officials and the community, it's failing miserably.

Last week, Brad Wilson, of Ecos Energy, went before the Select Board to inform members that the company he represents plans to try and move ahead with the Apple Hill and Chelsea solar projects that were proposed in 2015 and 2014, respectively.

Apple Hill Solar LLC and Chelsea Solar LLC are both owned by Allco Financial Limited. Allco also owns Ecos Energy, which handles permitting and public outreach for its various solar interests.

Legally speaking, Apple Hill and Chelsea are separate projects. If built as they were first proposed, they'd look like a single 27-acre solar field sitting where a forest used to be, just east of Route 7 in the Apple Hill neighborhood. In fact, the Public Service Board originally declared them to be one project, thus making it ineligible for a state subsidy program that caps projects at 2.2 megawatts. The Vermont Supreme Court disagreed, siding with the developer on an appeal. The PSB ultimately denied Chelsea a permit a year ago, but Allco isn't letting the matter go.

What Allco may have viewed as a shrewd reading of Vermont law came off as a cynical attempt to exploit it. Relations between the developer and residents have only deteriorated since, as evidenced by filings with the PSB and statements made at public meetings.

Prior to Wilson's latest visit, residents of Apple Hill and members of the Apple Hill Homeowner's Association came to the Select Board asking for its support in opposing the solar projects. According to the association's president, Allco has asked it to accept an informal, revised proposal for a smaller project. One resident even said she'd been offered $50,000 to go along with the new designs.

At this point, Apple Hill residents want nothing to do with Allco, rejecting its offers and, according to the developer, essentially giving it the silent treatment.

It doesn't help that Allco has asked the PSB to allow it to clear the land for agricultural purposes. Utility regulators have not ruled on this and residents view it as attempt by Allco to get a "toe in the door."

Allco is having the same public relations problems with its other solar endeavors in Bennington. The company owns Otter Creek Solar LLC, which last year unveiled its plans for upwards of 50 acres of solar array to be built as three closely sited projects — Dubbed Battle Creek Solar 1, 2, and 3 — on forested land behind Carbone Auto. It debuted these plans at a public information and feedback session held at the Vermont Veterans Home. They didn't go over terribly well, with residents accusing the developer of proposing projects it knows will have to be modified so it can give the appearance of making concessions later in the process.

Only one of the Battle Creek projects is moving forward, for now, and it seems unlikely that those living near it are inclined to offer it any support.

If Allco's projects are to be built, it won't be on the goodwill of its neighbors. On the upside, the company has left a fine blueprint for how not to develop solar in Vermont.


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