Town attorney: Reject solar settlement offer

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BENNINGTON — The town's attorney is recommending that the Select Board reject a settlement offer from the developer of a controversial solar project planned for the Apple Hill area of Bennington.

In a brief statement included in the board's agenda package for its Monday meeting, town counsel Rob Woolmington recommends that the settlement offer from Allco Renewable Energy (Ecos Energy), which included a $200,000 payment to the town, be rejected.

The attorney also recommends continued opposition before the Vermont Supreme Court to the company's appeal of a certificate of public good denial for the firm's Chelsea Hill Solar project, stemming from a state Public Utility Commission decision in 2016.

However, Woolmington also is recommending that the town not oppose the company's Apple Hill Solar project, which now is before the PUC seeking a certificate of public good. The town is an intervenor in both permit proceedings.

The two 2-megawatt solar generating arrays are proposed on adjacent sites in the Apple Hill area, northeast of the Route 7/Route 279 interchange and south of Apple Hill Road. Residents of the area and others have been vocal in their opposition, urging the Select Board at several recent meetings not to settle with the company and to continue opposing Ecos Energy in its Supreme Court appeal.

Woolmington is expected to give a full presentation on his recommendations at the board's Monday meeting. The report, following discussions among board members and the attorney in executive session, is expected to be discussed and possibly voted on in open session at that time.

Brad Wilson, a spokesman for the developer, said Thursday that the company will reserve comment until after the board has a chance to act on the recommendations.

"I don't know what all the implications of that are," said Lora Block, a resident of the area who has staunchly opposed the projects. She also noted that the board has yet to act on the attorney's advice.

What the recommendations could mean, if followed, is that the town would continue to oppose the Chelsea Hill Solar plan before the Supreme Court. The appeal relates to the company's original plan for a facility with a larger footprint and less natural screening, which the PUC rejected in part because it determined the proposal ran counter to provisions in the Bennington town plan for development in the Rural Conservation District.

Since the court appeal was launched, Ecos Energy has rolled out a new version of both the Chelsea Hill and Apple Hill solar projects, reconfiguring how they are situated on adjacent parcels and shrinking the array footprint while adding more natural screening.

What the town apparently would be doing in accepting the legal advice is dropping a key point of its opposition to the revised Apple Hill project, which is located further south from Apple Hill Road, while continuing to oppose the Chelsea project in court, at least in that project's initial version, pending any further settlement talks between the town and the developer.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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