Few Objections to 11-Acre Solar Project Planned for Durham Farmland

DURHAM — An 11-acre proposed solar project under consideration by the state’s Siting Council has not so far drawn significant objections from its neighbors — or from state agencies, which have primarily criticized the project’s use of about eight acres of farmland and its proximity to wetlands.

Proposed by Suffield-based solar developer Louth Callan Renewables, the solar project slated for Haddam Quarter Road in Durham is among the smallest that the siting council will review. With a capacity of 2.8 megawatts, it is just above the 2 MW threshold where the siting council has authority over solar projects.

The proposed solar project would cover 10.9 acres, including a 7.7 acre field of “prime farmland” that the developer says is cleared, but hasn’t been used for farming in a few years. The project is within a larger 44 acre property the developer is leasing, and they plan to continue leasing another cleared field on the property for a farmer to use.

Louth Callan did not answer messages left on Wednesday asking if they planned to use the remaining land for future solar developments.

Asked in a public hearing before the siting council on Tuesday if they considered agricultural “co-use” on the site – a practice the Department of Agriculture encourages to keep some productivity on farmland being used for solar developments – Graham Basecke, a senior project manager at Louth Callan, said that they don’t have plans in place, but have considered some types of co-use.

Dean Gustafson, Natural Resources Manager at All Points Technology – a consultant on this project – said that co-use could include planting pollinator habitats and possibly allowing beekeepers to bring hives on the site and harvest honey.

Basecke said they could work out a co-use quickly after the project is approved. Council member Robert Silvestri asked if co-use was something the developer was “definitely going to pursue.” Basecke said it was. 

The fact that the proposal is sited on a cleared farm field was the main objection raised in testimony filed with the siting council. The Connecticut Department of Agriculture said in its testimony that while measures the developer proposed to take – including keeping all of the topsoil on site – were helpful, they didn’t make up for using nearly 8 acres of land that has been used for farming since the 1700s.

In an attempt to balance land conservation with promoting renewable energy, state law attempts to discourage solar installations on prime farmland and core forest tracts by requiring that the Department of Agriculture and DEEP review and comment on such applications. 

But farmland is attractive for solar developers. They can find tracts of land large enough to fit a solar project that will cover dozens of acres, and they often find willing buyers in small farmers who struggle to make ends meet on the farm.

The other source of large, relatively cheap tracts is wooded land –  but state law also discourages that change of use because clear-cutting acres of land comes with its own environmental impacts, disrupting habitats and changing wetlands.

Arguments against clearing large sections of forest to build solar projects have swayed council members before – recently playing a role in the denial of an application for a solar project in North Stonington that would have cleared 44 acres of trees

But the fact that large areas of forest would be cleared is not an automatic disqualification – shown by the council’s approval of a project that will clear 75 acres in Waterford.

The Durham project would not require clearing any trees.

The Council of Environmental Quality suggested larger buffers around wetlands in the case of the Durham project – another common concern with solar projects in a state with numerous ponds and streams and pocketed with marshland.

The proposed project keeps a buffer of at least 50 feet from wetlands, with most of the project more than 80 feet from wetlands. The construction will remain at least 150 feet from a nearby brook, except in one area where the developer will place a sediment trap 35 feet from the brook.

The environmental council has recommended buffers of at least 100 feet to bring the project in line with Durham regulations, where the Inland Wetland and Watercourses Agency has a 100-foot review area for construction around wetlands.

Durham First Selectwoman Laura Francis said the town did not plan to file any objections to the project, but said some of the neighbors of the property had expressed concerns with visual impacts the project would have.

Louth Callan representatives said they had adjusted their plans after a meeting with neighbors to address some of those concerns. One of those changes was to include a walking path across the property – outside of the fenced-in solar array area – because the array would eliminate a farm road that is frequently used as a walking path. They also replaced a chain link fence that was in earlier plans.

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