Tie Vote Deals Surprise Setback to North Stonington Solar Project

Alice Fitzgerald gives a tour of her property abutting the North Stonington solar project


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A proposed solar project in North Stonington that has been through months of adjustments to accommodate wetlands on its site was rejected by the Connecticut Siting Council by a 3-3 vote on Thursday.

Nashville-based solar developer Silicon Ranch’s proposal to clear-cut 44 acres of woodland to build a 9.9 megawatt solar farm in North Stonington faced opposition from the town and neighbors of the project, who questioned the wisdom of clearing so many trees to build a project on land pock-marked by wetlands, with construction coming within inches of neighboring properties.

In a non-binding straw poll taken at the council’s previous meeting on Aug. 27, council members voted 4-3 in favor of the project. On Thursday, one of the members who indicated support of the project – Robert Hannon, who is the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s designated representative on the council – retired from the council on Sept. 1 and did not vote, and none of the other members changed their votes.

Silicon Ranch did not immediately answer a request for comment after the vote on Thursday. The company can submit a motion to reconsider the decision, or to reopen its petition, according to Connecticut Siting Council Executive Director Melanie Bachman.

The renewable energy project, which was originally selected by the state at the site of an abandoned quarry, was later moved and squeezed to avoid the wetlands that in part define the wooded and hilly area, allowing for buffers of at least 100 hundred feet from protected habitat, but leaving just 6 inches between a planned service road and neighbor Alice Fitzgerald’s property. Site plans show the solar panels stretching right up along the other side of the 16-foot wide road.

Less than 20 feet would have separated the solar panel installations from the property boundary with Fitzgerald, which is closer than local regulations would usually allow property owners like Fitzgerald to build in the residential zone.

“Shoehorn effect”

Walking around the wooded property behind her house on a recent rainy afternoon, Fitzgerald pointed out where the land slopes down steeply away from her property, and said it just didn’t make sense as the site of a solar farm. 

For one, the land is in North Stonington’s aquifer protection zone, and she wondered what the impact would be on her and her neighbors’ wells. 

“It’s all rocks and mud, that’s why they say they’re going to pile-drive the posts [for the solar panels] in,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m just waiting to see what happens to the water table.”

Like much of the wooded areas of eastern Connecticut, the area is pocketed with wetlands – a fact that caused Silicon Ranch to shift its project as the town fought for 100-foot buffers around the wetlands. Because of the larger buffers, Silicon Ranch had to move more panels planned to go in the area north of the Providence-New London Turnpike to the area behind Fitzgerald’s house.

Even after switching its plans to higher-wattage panels, the developer said it had to add hundreds more panels to make up for the capacity it lost by installing them so close together in order to stay out of the wetland buffers. The company said it was constrained by what it could do because it’s contractually obligated to provide 9.9 MW of electricity under the contract it received through the state procurement.

That to Fitzgerald is evidence enough that the project doesn’t fit there. It’s an argument that has held weight with some members of the Connecticut Siting Council – including Robert Silvestri, the former manager of environmental operations at United Illuminating.

At the council’s August meeting, Silvestri described the project as being “shoehorned” – pushed to fit into an area that’s ill-fitting for it. He pointed specifically to how close the access road comes to Fitzgerald’s property.

Not all members of the council agreed. At the Thursday meeting, Ed Edelson – the former first selectman of Southbury, who is Gov. Ned Lamont’s appointee to the council – said he was voting in favor of the project because he didn’t think the “shoehorning” effect had adverse impacts on the environment. He also said the benefits of moving Connecticut towards more renewable energy outweighed the impacts on neighbors.

“This is a pretty passive type of development. Yes, there will be some commotion during the construction, but less than a residential development might have,” he said. “As far as the operation, and everything we know, it will be extremely minimal in terms of the amount of people and activity on the site that would affect the neighbors.”

Wetlands everywhere

When it was selected in a 2015 state procurement for renewable energy projects, the project was owned by another company and was vastly different from the project Silicon Ranch is currently proposing. 

It was a smaller footprint – 97 acres instead of 157. It was partially planned to fit inside an abandoned gravel quarry north of I-95, instead of across the surrounding woods. It included plans for battery storage and a microgrid, features Silicon Ranch said it doesn’t plan to include.

That was another sticking point for Silvestri, who said the developer should have rethought the project to incorporate those features. “Qualitative” factors like being sited on a brownfield site, like the gravel pit, and including features like the battery storage and microgrid accounted for 25 percent of the scores that DEEP used to decide which projects to award contracts to in that procurement.

But because DEEP declined to release documents to CT Examiner that would show how individual project bids were scored in that procurement – citing trade secrets – it’s not clear how much those features factored into this project being selected in the first place.

How the project became a proposal to clear 44 acres of trees and leave the abandoned gravel quarry untouched has been puzzling for Fitzgerald.

Town officials went along with the original proposal, thinking it was a good use of the quarry that wouldn’t have impacts on neighbors. Fitzgerald said the first she heard of any solar project was when Silicon Ranch gave her notice that they were planning to move it into the area right behind her back yard.

For the town and Fitzgerald, it was a puzzling move. Silicon Ranch said the previous owners of the project had not done comprehensive environmental reviews of the quarry. When they realized there were several sensitive wetlands within the quarry, and started looking for surrounding land to move the project to. 

But the surrounding land, being a forested and hilly area, is also pock-marked with wetlands. Silvestri said 20 wetlands and 10 vernal pools were identified in the new project area, and with the developer clear-cutting 44 acres of trees, the elimination of the canopy would change those habitats.

A Silicon Ranch spokesperson told CT Examiner that extensive field reviews by third-party experts found that the gravel pit area contains significant environmental resources, worthy of protection – including habitats for state listed species like the eastern box turtle, spotted turtle and eastern spadefoot toad.

The change in design wasn’t about the forested land being more desirable to build on, it was a matter of following DEEP’s environmental regulations and protecting those sensitive habitats, Silicon Ranch said. It’s an argument that convinced some of the council members, like Hannon, who said at the August meeting that he agreed with moving the project to the northern parcels to avoid the southern parcels, which he said were much more environmentally sensitive.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to note the retirement of Robert Hannon