BENNINGTON — A company-backed survey to gauge support for a controversial solar energy project has riled the already determined opponents, less than a week before what could prove a key decision by the Bennington Selectboard.
A spokesman for Allco Renewable Energy (Ecos Energy), which proposes adjacent 2-megawatt solar arrays in the Apple Hill area off Route 7, confirmed Tuesday that the developer has hired a canvasser to conduct a door-to-door survey.
The purpose, according to Brad Wilson, senior project manager with Ecos Energy, is “to ask people what they think about the Apple Hill and Chelsea Hill projects.”
Wilson said the side-by-side generating projects have received “significant support so far,” and the intent is to present the gathered signatures to the Selectboard at its meeting Monday.
That initiative generated an outpouring of opposition to the company paying for canvassing, which has raged on social media and in letters to the editor, especially since a long Facebook comment thread erupted on the morning of Aug. 4.
Mary Gerisch, known for her work with the local Rights and Democracy chapter and other organizations, posted a news article on the solar projects and commented: “And to boot the developers are paying local residents to canvas door to door in support of their project.”
“So they are costing the town tons of money for litigation,” Gerisch added, “and spending their hedge fund earned dollars to further influence public opinion to buy a zoning variance. Are our ordinances for sale to the highest bidder? Is this the kind of community we want?”
Soon after, Aaron Sawyer, who said he supports the projects and is participating in the survey, posted the first of several replies to Gerisch’s post, and a long-running debate followed involving several others as well.
“Paid canvassers by either corporations or nonprofits to advance their cause is nothing new,” Sawyer wrote. “You and I both know that. Would you be as upset about Let’s Grow Kids paying canvassers to get their side of a message out, odds are you wouldn’t.”
The Selectboard has had a series of recent meetings with town attorney Rob Woolmington in executive session to discuss whether Bennington should drop its opposition to the projects as part of a proposed settlement with the developer.
That settlement would include having the town bow out of a Vermont Supreme Court appeal the firm has mounted to overturn the rejection by the state Public Utility Commission of a certificate of public good for one of the solar projects.
The second solar project is now before the PUC for a certificate, and both proposals have been revised and resubmitted in a thus-far failed attempt to mollify the concerns and objections of residents of the area and others.
The opponents have vociferously urged the Selectboard not to settle with the company, especially in light of the state’s earlier rejection of a certificate of public good and continued efforts to oppose the appeal before the Supreme Court.
The town has been granted intervenor status in the permit process for both projects.
The PUC’s rejection of a certificate for the Chelsea Hill proposal concluded that the project ran counter to provisions in the town plan for development in the Rural Conservation District.
The 2016 decision states in part: “In this case, we find that the Town Plan language is specific in nature, is specifically applicable to the project site, and seeks to conserve scenic resources by identifying specific actionable requirements and thus constitutes a clear, written community standard.”
The opponents contend that the town’s departure from the Supreme Court appeal could doom a case they see as winnable, given the PUC determination in 2016.
The company’s settlement offer also includes a $200,000 payment to the town, which opponents have described as “a bribe” from the developer.
Wilson described the offer as an “impact fee,” which he said is common to offset a community’s costs in reviewing large developments.
In addition to the social media debate, a column was published in the Bennington Banner this week by Libby Harris, an abutter of the project site and an intervenor, again urging the board to stay the course. She reiterated that the company had offered her $50,000 in the spring to drop her opposition but she refused.
Lora Block, another resident of the Apple Hill area, said in a letter to the newspaper, “I wonder if any of the canvassers really knew they were doing the bidding of a multi-million dollar commercial solar company that was fighting against our town plan?
“Some canvassers may have agreed to do this work because they wanted the $20/hour being paid,” Block wrote. “Others may innocently have thought it was simply a way of supporting solar energy. Those of us fighting against these two projects do support solar energy in the right place.”
Wilson said the person hired to oversee the survey, whom he declined to name to avoid involving him in the controversy, has experience conducting canvassing and has worked previously on similar projects. That person is not Sawyer, he said.
People were paid to go door to door, Wilson said, but added, “We are not paying for signatures.”
Sawyer said in a Facebook post that he was being paid to work on the survey. “I however, was offered the position because I was already a vocal proponent of the project,” he stated.
He did not return messages seeking further comment.
Selectboard member Donald Campbell, who is serving as acting chairman during the solar project deliberations, said Tuesday that the board has asked Woolmington to offer a recommendation at the upcoming meeting on how the town should proceed.