Planners try to control renewable siting

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The Colchester Planning Commission is considering where in town solar and wind projects should not be built as part of a new state law offering greater voice to towns in the energy siting process. (File photo)

The Colchester Planning Commission is considering where in town solar and wind projects should not be built as part of a new state law offering greater voice to towns in the energy siting process. (File photo)

Under a November 1 deadline, Colchester planners are making progress delineating where wind and solar energy projects should not be sited in town.

The work is an effort to take advantage of increased local control over renewable energy projects under Act 174, which the Vermont legislature passed last spring.

The law requires the state’s energy regulating body, the Public Service Board, to give “substantial deference” to local siting desires, a higher bar than the previous “due consideration.”

The Colchester Planning Commission approved a draft list earlier this month that identifies areas of town where wind and solar infrastructure is unwelcome. The list was submitted for inclusion in the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission’s energy plan, which is due to the PSB in May. The CCRPC has requested local input on the plan from municipal leaders by the first of the month.

Colchester planning coordinator Karen Purinton populated the list with wetlands and vernal pools, rare and irreplaceable natural habitats, roadways and river corridors. She also identified areas where wind turbines and solar panels are “not impossible, but not preferable.”

One such area is Colchester’s Shoreland District, property within 250 feet of Lake Champlain and Colchester Pond. The district has tight restrictions on development of any type.

“We felt if we don’t allow folks to build in these areas now, it would be hard to open them up to energy generation,” Purinton said.

Another non-preferred area is all land managed by the parks and recreation department, but planners left open the possibility of developing energy sites on other town-owned land.

“We don’t see in the master planning that has gone on any suitable [park] locations,” Purinton said. “They are for public purposes, for recreation.”

Planners also included wetland buffers around water bodies, a small “open space overlay district” near the Exit 17 interchange of Interstate 89 and Fort Ethan Allen for its historic value.

“This is an area that is prided on its historic quality and doesn’t seem compatible with energy generation,” Purinton said of the former military fort along Route 15.

State and regional guidance on the non-preferred list includes agricultural soils, floodplains, deer wintering habitat and conserved land. Colchester planners added areas where future roads are planned.

“We think it’s a good move to put land that has clearly been earmarked for transportation purposes into the not impossible but improbable category,” Purinton said.

The planning commission approved the draft 5-0 to forward for inclusion in the regional energy plan. Once the PSB certifies the regional plan is aligned with the state’s renewable energy goals – including obtaining 90 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2050 – Colchester can get to work on its own municipal energy plan.

For the town’s energy desires to have substantial deference in the PSB’s energy siting decisions, they also need to align with state energy goals. Planning commission members committed to writing a compliant local energy plan after the regional plan is adopted.

The local plan will have siting standards beyond just location, Purinton said, to include regulations on height, proximity to homes, screening and erosion control.

“It’s one thing to consider, ‘Should an energy site go here?’ It’s another to say ‘if it goes here, how should it be designed,’” Purinton said. “We will get to a discussion about that, and there will absolutely be an opportunity to discuss how these sites are developed. Right now we are just trying to [identify] where they shouldn’t be developed.”