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Solar, wind power bans in the Town?

ST. ALBANS – As the Public Service Board’s hearing on a proposed solar farm took place just a few miles away, town selectboard members were voicing their opinions about alternative energy.

Solar and wind farms were not getting a warm reception and an amendment to the St. Albans Town Master Plan reflecting that sentiment will soon be drafted.

Town Manager Gerry Myers explained that an e-mail received from board member Bill Nihan had prompted the agenda item for last night’s regular selectboard meeting.

Nihan said the issue came to him as he drove north from Middlebury and saw solar panels in a field. “It just looks horrible,” he said.

Later, Nihan spoke against alternative energy. He accused the Public Service Board (PSB) of having an agenda that did not benefit all. He said alternative energy projects should not be allowed and that St. Albans Town should put in place any restrictions it could to limit such projects.

“Personally I’d like to ban wind towers completely in this area,” he said.

The town has few options in the way of prohibiting solar and wind energy farms. The PSB has the sole authority to allow or deny them.

An amendment to the Town Plan would not provide town government final say, but would put in writing the town’s position on the issue and, it was suggested last night, might be considered by the PSB when it reviewed projects.

Last night served as the first of two public hearings on the new Town Plan as it continues through the adoption process.

Prior to last night’s meeting, Myers had spoken with a contact at the Northwest Regional Planning Commission, members of the town planning commission (three were in attendance last night, having legally warned their presence as a commission meeting), and Rep. Lynn Dickinson, who also attended last night’s meeting.

It was noted during last night’s discussion that the route to creating local control over alternative energy projects was to change state law.

Dickinson brought with her excerpts from state statute section 248 of Title 30, which requires approval from the PSB for alternative energy projects. The PSB, if it chooses, awards certificates of public good, allowing projects to go forward.

“It’s going to be very hard to change 248,” Dickinson told the selectboard. She added, though, that there is some real potential to gain support from groups and individuals who also oppose such developments.

Rep. Dickinson recommended that the board offer testimony before the PSB in order to raise its concerns publicly.

As the discussion progressed last night , selectboard chair Bernie Boudreau noted, “Ironically there’s a meeting right now on the solar farm.”

No member of the selectboard attended the PSB hearing at Bellows Free Academy-St. Albans regarding the large solar farm being proposed for Route 7, south of the city (see accompanying article). However, town officials still have time remaining to weigh in on the local project.

Selectboard member Brent Palmer concurred with Nihan about banning alternative energy projects, saying the local planning commission and development review boards work hard and that he did not appreciate that the state could ignore local restrictions.

Selectman Joe Montagne said he had done research on the issue but had not yet made up his mind.

Planning commission member Bruce Cheeseman added from the audience that if town government said nothing on the subject, the state would have a clear path to push ahead with projects and by going on the record town officials at least could make known their aversion to such installations.

The planning commission has been working on zoning bylaws, which chair Cheryl Teagues said could reflect whatever the community desires. For example, if the community decided it did not want visible wind towers, it could stand up against them. The state could override that, but at least the feeling would be known, and possibly considered.

A past study proved that much of the land in the town is not conducive to wind towers anyway.

To keep the Town Plan approval process on track the board decided not to add anything about alternative energy last night. However, it decided it would draft an amendment to be added later, stating a clear opinion on the issue. There will likely be a public meeting dedicated to the subject to gather public input.

Also at the meeting:

® The tax rate for FY 13 was set at $0.3493 per $100 assessed value. This is about a penny more than last year’s $0.333, said town clerk Anna Bourdon.

® Mike Godin and Gerald Bouchard spoke on behalf of the Grice Brook Homeowner’s Association, asking the town to work on maintaining Thorpe Avenue where the about 55 housing units are located, possibly changing it to a class 3 road. Myers believed the town does own the class 4 road. If it was changed to a class 3, the town would have to maintain it in all seasons. The homeowners association was not asking that the town plow it in the winter. More research will be done before action can be taken.

® Discussion was held but no action was taken regarding park ordinances.