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‘We traded green for green.’ Controversial solar array built on Simsbury farmland now producing power

One of the largest and most controversial solar projects in New England is now operating in Simsbury after years of local opposition, state concerns about the loss of farmland and legislation to make such projects more difficult in the future.

Located on more than 130 acres, the Tobacco Valley Solar array will be able to produce about 26 megawatts of power a year using about 100,000 solar panels. The project is estimated to provide enough electricity for 5,000 homes.

But it has been built on formerly productive farmland in a state that has lost thousands of acres of agricultural property and woodlands to energy projects in recent years.

“We traded green for green,” Laura Nigro, a Simsbury resident who opposed the Tobacco Valley plan, said Thursday. “Connecticut is losing farmland at a rapid pace,” she said, arguing the state still doesn’t have a concrete solution to the agriculture-versus-renewable-energy dilemma.

The Tobacco Valley project was initially opposed in 2016 by both the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and this state’s Department of Agriculture because of the potential loss of farmland. The only reason the huge solar array was eventually approved was that it had the support of Massachusetts and Rhode Island under an unusual three-state compact designed to promote regional renewable energy.

Simsbury spent an estimated $200,000 on legal costs fighting the project until it reached an agreement with the developers in 2018 to modify plans for the solar array to make it less objectionable to residents. That deal will also allow the town to buy the property once the project reaches the end of its useful life span.

Largely because of the Tobacco Valley controversy, the Connecticut General Assembly later passed legislation to make it far more difficult for major energy projects to be built on valuable farm and forest lands.

Simsbury First Selectman Eric Wellman believes the Tobacco Valley solar array is an overall win for his town. “I think it’s a good project,” he said. “We fought for a better project.”

One key element in the project’s favor, according to Wellman, is that Tobacco Valley is expected to provide Simsbury with an average of $600,000 a year in additional tax revenue over the multidecade life of the solar array.

“This is about Simsbury playing a role in the green economy of our nation,” Wellman said, adding that he considers it a huge win that the town will eventually be able to buy the land for a nominal fee and turn it into open space.

A lawyer for the project’s owner, Deepwater Wind, notified the Connecticut Siting Council this week that the solar operation in now up and running. Lee D. Hoffman said in his letter to the council that additional plantings designed to screen the huge solar array from the public still need to be done this coming spring.

Nigro said she doesn’t doubt that the developers will keep their promises to make the project less visible to the public.

“I believe we reached a good deal for the town,” Nigro said of the changes the developer agreed to make in the compromise agreement with Simsbury. Those changes included a reduction in the overall footprint of the solar array from the original 300-acre plan down to about half that area.

Nigro also approves of the portion of the agreement that will allow the town to buy back the property once it is no longer being used for solar power.

One thing that Nigro and Wellman agree on is the vast size of the solar array.

“It is massive,” Nigro said, “it’s astounding how many solar panels there are.”

“It’s amazing when you’re on the site,” said Wellman. The first selectman acknowledges that it does affect the views of some residents, but he argues that, for most people passing the location, “it’s also fairly invisible.”

Wellman also agrees that the loss of that amount of farmland in that part of Simsbury is rather sad. “When you look at the character of that part of our community … the history is farming,” he said.