Solar arrays: Visual impact and financial guarantees discussed at LMPC workshop

| Joanne Cole, NGX |

Pineland Farms’ possible interest in solar energy development was evident at the Land Management Planning Committee’s November 26 meeting, as was concern about solar projects’ impact on New Gloucester’s landscape.  Paul Pietropaoli, general counsel and vice president of Libra Foundation, whose holding company owns Pineland, had several comments and questions about LMPC’s draft solar energy system ordinance.  He was particularly concerned about its requirement of a decommissioning plan and financial guarantee to ensure that large solar arrays be removed at the end of their useful life. 

Also commenting on the draft ordinance was New Gloucester resident Terry DeWan, whose landscape architecture and planning firm has extensive experience with large-scale energy projects and how to site them appropriately.  DeWan urged LMPC to be more specific about where projects should and perhaps should not go, and to “dovetail” its work with that of the Comprehensive Plan Update Committee, which is identifying areas of particular natural and scenic importance in the town. 

Libra’s Pietropaoli led off the workshop with questions about LMPC’s timetable and next steps.  Once LMPC finalizes the ordinance—at its upcoming December 18 meeting, town planner Scott Hastings hopes—the proposed ordinance will be discussed at a joint meeting of LMPC, the Planning Board, and the Select Board.  Following a public hearing, a final version would go to voters at town meeting in May.

Pietropaoli then identified several substantive concerns, some unique to Pineland and others applicable generally.  For example, Pietropaoli noted that the ordinance calls for submission of “solar energy system specifications” but does not indicate whether those are technical specifications, performance specifications, or something else.

Of greatest concern to Pietropaoli was the ordinance’s requirement for a decommissioning plan and financial guarantee against abandonment of large ground-mounted systems.  He called the guarantee requirement “not typical,” noting its cost to owners/developers—particularly if a system’s useful life is as long as forty years—and asked why it was included.  Committee member Jean Libby responded, “I just don’t want someone walking away from it in twenty-five or forty years.  You people [Libra] might not, but others might.”  The town currently requires similar financial guarantees for gravel pits and cell towers.

A lively discussion followed, with the committee and Pietropaoli discussing what’s involved in removing an array system and properly disposing of panels (less effort and expense than remediating a gravel pit, they thought), and whether bonds, escrow payments, or other arrangements are practicable over decades and would ensure that removal actually happens.  

Pietropaoli readily acknowledged the town’s desire to “protect the aesthetic” but said, “It’s a question of cost for us.”  For LMPC, the solar ordinance involves balancing competing considerations: how to encourage a mix of energy systems to reduce the collective carbon footprint while also acknowledging landowners’ rights and the community’s interest in preserving the beauty and character of the town.   

It was on this last point that resident Terry DeWan focused, including “the visual aspects that make our community so unique.”  He advocated adding language to the ordinance that systems be located to avoid “undue adverse impact on New Gloucester’s natural and scenic character,” and he encouraged specificity about where solar projects should be sited—“and maybe even where they shouldn’t be.”  He asked, “What sort of fields or woods don’t you want to see occupied by solar systems?” 

As currently drafted, solar projects would be permitted in every zone in town, including resource protection zones, farm and forest zones, and the historic district.  There is also no cap on project size or size restriction within any zone.  DeWan asked, “Are there areas of visual sensitivity, of historical sensitivity, we want to avoid?” 

DeWan urged LMPC to consider what the town identifies as special areas, including those the Comp Plan Update Committee may designate as naturally and visually significant, and therefore worthy of “an extra layer of attention.”  Those areas should be spelled out to guide the Planning Board and applicants, in his view.  One useful tool, DeWan suggested, could be requiring applicants to submit a visual impact statement showing how their project’s siting takes those special considerations into account.

Wrapping up, LMPC agreed to give further thought before its December 18 meeting to the performance guarantee question, whether to limit the size/scale of projects, and the siting and impacts of projects in specific zones.   

Video of LMPC’s November 26 meeting can be viewed here.  The draft solar energy ordinance and more information about LMPC’s work can be accessed here on the town website.

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