Energy & Environment

Utility regulator denies controversial Bennington solar project

A commercial solar array off Route 7 just south of downtown Bennington. File photo by Jim Therrien/VTDigger

The Vermont Public Utility Commission denied an application for a 2-megawatt solar array on a forested Bennington hillside, to the delight of some neighbors who fiercely opposed the project. 

The commissioners, reversing an earlier decision, said last week that putting the solar panels in a “rural conservation district” east of Route 7 would run afoul of the town plan

New York-based renewable developer Allco Renewable Energy Limited, headed by attorney Thomas Melone, has been seeking state approval of the project since 2015. Melone is also looking to build another solar array of the same size on an adjacent property, which the PUC had originally denied approval. 

The Apple Hill Homeowners Association and neighbor Libby Harris intervened in the case to oppose the project, which would require clear cutting an almost 10-acre patch of woods that nearby residents use for recreation. They argued that the “black box would stick out like a sore thumb” on the otherwise tree-covered hillside. 

The town of Bennington also opposed the solar array, arguing that the proposed development conflicts with the town plan. 

In 2017, Allco Renewable agreed to make some changes to both Bennington solar projects, and the town withdrew its opposition

PUC hearing officer Michael Tousley took that settlement agreement as evidence that Apple Hill Solar was in compliance with the town plan, and approved the project in 2018. Harris and the neighborhood association appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.

The high court ruled last year that the PUC had based its approval of the project on faulty logic, requiring the commission to review whether the proposal met with development criteria laid out in the town plan. 

Allco Renewables argued that the modified project would no longer be visible from the road and fits in with the county’s energy plan

But the commissioners determined this month that the solar panels would “unduly interfere with orderly development” in the area. 

The solar development “would be an example of the sprawling-out of an urban center with the result that the views towards the (project) would cause Apple Hill to lose some of its rural character and appeal,” they wrote. 

Brooke Dingledine, attorney for Harris and the homeowners association, said her clients “feel vindicated that the photographs, their efforts, their testimony have finally been heard and recognized, and they are really pleased with the result.” 

The 52-page decision also provides guidance for municipalities looking to use town plans as a way to gain more control over local energy siting and other types of development, she added. 

Dingledine said she expects Allco Renewable will appeal the Apple Hill decision. 

The Supreme Court is still reviewing the PUC’s denial of the other solar project the developer wants to build on the adjacent site. Dingledine said she expects the Apple Hill decision to provide “the pattern” for how that other case will go. 

Melone did not return a message left Tuesday seeking comment.

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Elizabeth Gribkoff

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Gribkoff is VTDigger's energy and environment reporter. She graduated from UVM's Environmental Studies program in 2013, receiving departmental honors for her thesis on women's farming networks in Chile and Vermont. Since graduating, Elizabeth has worked in conservation and sustainable agriculture. Most recently, she was a newsroom and reporting intern with VTDigger.

Email: [email protected]

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