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Williamstown board derails solar project, strengthens 'leash law'

Source: 
The Times Argus

WILLIAMSTOWN - The Select Board scuttled a solar project that enjoyed the blessing of the Planning Commission and agreed during its Monday night meeting to put dog owners and their pets on a very short leash.

Board members, who unanimously embraced an unambiguous leash law that will replace the vague version now on the books, narrowly refused to endorse preliminary plans to develop a 500-kilowatt solar project on a Baptist Street farm.

The latter decision was something of a surprise, and the 2-3, vote saw Chairman Rodney Graham joined in his dissent by board members Francis Covey and Jasmin Coulliard. Both of the board's other members, Matthew Rouleau and Jessica Worn voted to support the "preferred siting designation" requested by Martha Staskus, vice president of development for Norwich Solar Technologies.

Staskus, who last month pitched the same proposal to a receptive Planning Commission, said Norwich Solar Technologies remains interested in acquiring the 22-acre farm that is now for sale between Baptist Street and Adams Road and using roughly 3 acres of the land to locate a solar array that would generate renewable energy for the next 25 years.

Though the project is at the pre-permitting stage and potential customers of the electricity it generates haven't yet been identified, Staskus said a head nod from the Select Board - like the Planning Commission before it - was a necessary first step.

The board's blessing, Staskus said, would enable Norwich Solar Technologies to begin gathering information needed to formally apply for state approval of the net metering project, she predicted would generate an additional $5,000 to $6,000 a year in new property taxes for the town.

"That's just an estimate," she said.

Staskus said the proposed solar project would also pay a "conduction tax" to the state's education fund and would be a cost-effective energy option - preferably for Williamstown users.

"We'd like to keep it local," she said of the net metering credits that would assigned if the project was approved and constructed.

It won't be - a fact a masked Staskus underscored after the board rejected her request during Monday's meeting at the public safety building.

"That kills the project," she said.

Staskus, who showed up at the meeting looking for what Planning Commission Chairman Richard Turner described as a "green light" from the Select Board, received a couple of red flags instead.

The first was waved by Graham, who expressed concern that the project would take some prime agricultural land out of play in a state he said is actively working with some of its neighbors in an effort to address food sustainability issues that were evident at grocery stores early on in the COVID-19 pandemic.

"When you start parking (agricultural) land for 25 years you may be affecting … the … food supply," he said.

Staskus said only a portion farmland - perhaps three acres - would be used by the array, and Norwich Solar Technologies was open to an interested farmer using the balance of the property for growing hay or crops and possibly letting sheep graze within the array itself, which already happens at other solar installations, including one her company developed in White River Junction.

Staskus noted the farm, owned by David Pullman, isn't currently producing crops, is for sale and other more permanent uses could be proposed that would forever eliminate the viability of the land to contribute to Vermont's food supply.

Rouleau agreed. He said much of the land would remain available for agricultural use, if needed, and the proposed solar installation was temporary and would preserve the land in a way building houses on it would not.

"It basically puts the land on hold for 25 years," he said.

Covey said he had cooled to the concept of solar fields after watching several of them developed in Williamstown.

"Electricity was going to be so much cheaper, and it keeps going up," he said. "It just seems to be adding cost to the users."

Staskus said that isn't true if users who take advantage of net-metering credits.

Graham and Covey voted against the request and were joined by Coulliard, who, like Rouleau serves on the Planning Commission, and voted to support it when that panel met last month.

Though the board was divided on the solar project, members were united with a barely discussed revision to the town's "Dog and Pet Ordinance."

With limited exceptions the earlier version of an ordinance, which was last amended in December, required dogs and wolf hybrids to be "restrained from running at large."

Some observed that language created a loophole you could walk a dog through and fueled the all-too-familiar "it comes when I call" defense advanced by those whose dogs weren't leashed.

The newly approved revision fixes that by requiring dogs and wolf hybrids that aren't on the property of their owners to be leashed, in a vehicle, or on the premises of another person with that person's permission.

Those that aren't will be "deemed to be running at large" - opening their owners up to civil penalties, which range from $75 to $500. Pet owners who don't contest the violations could pay waiver fees ranging from $50 to $300.

david.delcore @timesargus.com

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