North Stonington Selectmen Vote to End Fight With Solar Farm Developer

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


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NORTH STONINGTON – After its proposal to clear-cut 44 acres of woodland for a 9.9 megawatt solar farm was rejected by state officials in a surprise tie vote in September, Nashville-based Silicon Ranch offered the town’s board of selectmen a deal.

The company would scale back the project to 8.35 megawatt, constraining it entirely south of the Norwich-New London Turnpike, if the town agreed to drop its opposition to the proposal at the Connecticut Siting Council. If the town didn’t agree, the company said it would go ahead with re-submitting its full 9.9 MW proposal with enough revisions to satisfy the council.

The council voted 2-0 to approve the deal on Tuesday night, with Selectman Brett Mastroianni abstaining from the vote, meaning that the project will likely move forward if Eversource is willing to accept less energy than was originally contracted with the developer. 

The deal resolves one of the town’s major complaints, that a project initially proposed to fit inside an abandoned quarry just north of Interstate 95 grew into a proposal to clear-cut woods north of the Norwich-New London Turnpike to fit 9.9 MW worth of solar panels around scattered wetlands.

But the deal did nothing to answer the concerns of town residents living south of the turnpike, particularly Alice Fitzgerald, whose property came within six inches of a proposed service road in the company’s rejected proposal. 

Fitzgerald, who is moving out of state with her husband for a new job, said the proposal has made it impossible for her to sell her house. According to Fitzgerald, one potential buyer backed out of a sale at the last minute because of the project.

Newer proposals would relocate that access road and move the fence line to 9-and-a-half feet from Fitzgerald’s property line – which company representatives said should alleviate concerns of the council. But Fitzgerald said she didn’t think that change would make it any easier to sell her home.

“I don’t know what I can do if we can’t sell,” Fitzgerald said after the meeting, feeling like she had been sold out by the selectmen. “We can’t afford to have two mortgages.”

The deal

At first, the North Stonington Solar Project seemed like a great deal for the town. Under a previous owner, the project earned a contract from the state to sell power to Eversource from a 9.9 MW solar array set inside an abandoned quarry just north of Interstate 95 for $97.06 per megawatt hour of electricity produced. 

In Connecticut, where developing farmland or cutting trees is usually the cheapest and easiest way to build a solar project, an agreement to site a relatively large project on a brownfield seemed like a coup for North Stonington, and fit into the state’s policy goals.

But after Silicon Ranch purchased the project, that proposal was reconfigured to a 44-acre clear cut entirely set apart from the gravel pit, after the company says it discovered vernal pools and potential habitats for the eastern box turtle, spotted turtle, and eastern spadefoot toad on the quarry property. 

The change caught the town by surprise, particularly that the proposal included a 30-acre, heavily wooded property north of the Norwich-New London Turnpike – and the town requested a hearing from the siting council to fight the proposal. 

The town’s arguments persuaded enough of the siting council to have the application narrowly rejected. On Tuesday, Ali Weaver, Silicon Ranch director of project development, presented a revised application that she said the company planned to submit to the siting council as soon as Wednesday.

The proposal, which Weaver presented at the meeting to the Board of Selectmen and 20 interested residents, was largely the same as the one the siting council rejected — a 9.9 MW project that included properties both north and south of the Providence-New London Turnpike, but Silicon Ranch had moved fence lines several feet back from neighboring properties and installing wooden fences around the perimeter to screen the view of the solar arrays from neighbors.

After about an hour of answering pointed questions from neighbors about the revised project, Weaver presented a second option: Silicon Ranch would drop about 15 percent of its proposed capacity so that it could fit the entire project south of the turnpike, including the larger setbacks and new fencing, if the town agreed not to fight them on it.

“It’s a very big change and, of course, represents a loss for us in what the expectation was for the project,” Weaver said. “However, I think the conversations that we’ve had over the last couple of months, we hear you, and we understand that this is incredibly important for us to be able to move forward in this town.”

Weaver said that Silicon Ranch was confident that the company could get their 9.9 MW proposal, including the parcels north of the Norwich-New London Turnpike, approved by the siting council with the revisions they made. 

Ken Baldwin, an attorney representing Silicon Ranch, noted the siting council indicated support for the project in a 4-3 preliminary vote, but DEEP’s appointee to the council retired before the final vote, leading to a 3-3 tie and a rejection of the application

Weaver said the company would prefer to go ahead with the town’s support to avoid another long hearing process, and said that Silicon Ranch would move forward with the 8.3 MW proposal, located entirely to the south of the turnpike, if the selectmen agreed not to ask the siting council for another evidentiary hearing.

Town Attorney Robert Avena told the selectmen that the town had spent about $15,000 to fight the first application, and to successfully point out issues that would sway the council. Now that Silicon Ranch had addressed those issues in its revised proposal, Avena said he believed the company had more than a 50 percent chance of having the project approved even if the town continued to fight.

“We do have limited options when it comes to siting council projects.” Avena said. “The purpose of putting a siting council in Connecticut is because a lot of utility projects would never be approved by the 169 towns. These are difficult projects, especially when they end up in areas that are objectionable, like residential areas.”

“A lot more to lose than to gain”

Selectman Nicole Porter asked, if the town fought Silicon Ranch’s application again, and succeeded in having the siting council reject the project again, whether the company would simply apply again. Weaver indicated they would, saying Silicon Ranch is committed to seeing the project through.

Selectman Brett Mastroianni asked if the selectmen could meet again in a week to give the members some time to review the proposals before deciding what to do, and to decide whether it wanted to ask for changes like larger setbacks from the neighboring properties. 

But the Silicon Ranch representatives would not promise to hold off re-submitting the application. Baldwin said the company was already far behind schedule to meet the obligations of its contract to sell power to Eversource, and that a week was a significant amount of time given that the siting council meets just one more time, on Dec. 16, this calendar year. 

Avena said that, even if the selectmen agreed not to fight the proposal in an evidentiary hearing, the town would still be able to submit comments to the siting council asking it to consider changes like increased setbacks.

Mastroianni said he wasn’t comfortable voting on the proposal the same night it was presented for the first time, and abstained from the vote. Having only joined the board three weeks ago, he said he didn’t have the benefit of being involved in the town’s deliberations over the project for the past year.

First Selectman Bob Carlson said the board needed to accept Silicon Ranch’s offer or the company could simply go forward with the larger application without the town’s approval.The concessions offered by the company were a big deal, Carlson said.

Porter agreed that taking the deal was best for the entire town, given what he said was the likelihood that the siting council would approve the larger revised proposal even if the town opposed it.

“It’s an emotional situation. None of us would want this happening to us,” Carlson said. “But if you look at the big picture, if you look at it logically, we have a lot more to lose than to gain at this point.”

This story has been edited to clarify that Robert Avena was acting as legal counsel for the town