RUTLAND TOWN — A debate over solar energy development in Rutland Town generated plenty of remarks during a hearing before the town’s Planning Commission.
During a two-hour, packed hearing Thursday night, the commissioners heard mostly from residents and renewable-energy advocates and business representatives who are opposed to siting standards the town is considering for solar projects in the town.
The standards wouldn’t prohibit solar projects, such as a 9,000-panel project proposed on Cold River Road, from being built. But the standards would impose conditions, including special setbacks, on large-scale solar assemblies.
Whether the town adopts the standards or not would have only a limited effect on proposed solar projects in the community. The Vermont Public Service Board has sole authority over the approval of solar projects and any conditions imposed on them. But the state board also pays close attention to local zoning and town plans during their review of proposed projects.
A number of people, mostly solar advocates, protested the proposed town standards Thursday.
In a statement issued Friday, Steve Costello, Green Mountain Power vice president for generation and energy innovation, said the proposed standards would be a “tremendous roadblock” to the company’s plans to use solar energy to produce power and create economic change in the region.
“We believe the community overwhelmingly supports solar development in the town, as do 90 percent of our customers statewide in our most recent customer survey, for economic and environmental reasons,” Costello said. “We have already brought several new businesses to the region specifically to develop solar, creating new jobs and adding a new level of hope and pride in the greater Rutland community, and we think the region has a tremendous opportunity in front of it to build a new economy based on responsible renewable development.”
The sentiments of Costello, who lives in the town, were echoed by resident Mary Anne Levins who said she’s excited by the prospect of a growing solar industry in Rutland.
“People are starting to see the possibilities not the problems,” Levins said. “I want to make sure the town is a good partner in that and doesn’t handcuff the process.”
But Kathy Aicher, spokeswoman for Vermonters for Responsible Solar — founded by three neighbors of the solar project proposed for Cold River Road — said Friday that the rush to make Rutland and the surrounding area into a solar capital was being pushed ahead without regard for those who might have to live next to fields full of solar panels.
“This whole issue isn’t about being anti-anything,” she said. “It’s about protecting what’s valuable and beautiful about where we live.”
She lauded town officials for working to give residents more of a voice in the process.
“They’re trying to look out for the residents first and foremost,” she said.
Planning Commission Chairman William Matteson said he was glad so many people turned out to give their input Thursday.
“I was glad to hear them speak up last night,” he said. “The commission needs to hear what people think.”
While the input heard Thursday night was tilted in favor of the town imposing no restrictions or limitations on solar development, Matteson said he believes the process the town is going through and the standards that could eventually emerge from the debate is the best way to come up with a thoughtful set of rules.
“We need a plan that’s thought out for the Public Service Board to give any serious consideration too,” he said.
The commission will meet again Dec. 19 to talk about potential changes to the document before its forwarded to the Select Board, which would also hold public hearings.
“I think there will be further discussion on the setbacks and things like that,” Matteson said.
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