Vassalboro planners send long-discussed solar ordinance amendment to select board

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro planning board members have sent to the town select board the long-discussed ordinance amendment that has for convenience been referred to as a solar ordinance.

After another two hours’ review at their March 7 meeting, planning board members decided they are satisfied with the draft they have worked on for months and voted unanimously to forward it.

Select board members will decide whether to put this version, or perhaps an amended one, on the warrant for the June 13 written-ballot part of the annual town meeting.

The proposed ordinance will be available for public review after select board members agree to put it to a vote, and a public hearing will allow residents to ask questions and express opinions.

With voter approval, the solar provisions will become a new Section XI of Vassalboro’s Site Review Ordinance. Amendments are proposed to other sections of the ordinance, too, some correcting or clarifying unrelated provisions and some – additional definitions, for example – auxiliary to the solar section.

The solar provisions were the topic of a Feb. 28 public hearing. At the March 7 meeting, planning board members reviewed written comments received after the hearing. Four members of the Main Street Maine coalition, formed after a solar company proposed an installation between Route 32 and Outlet Stream north of Duratherm Window Company, commented from the audience.

Buffer areas, fences, screening and in general isolation of a solar installation were one major topic. Board members accepted a suggestion to reduce the requirement for an eight-foot fence – which might require expensive special construction, they found – to the seven feet a ReVision energy comment said is in the National Electrical Code.

Board members agreed that a requirement for area testing for contaminants should be for monitoring wells, not soil tests. Board member Paul Mitnik pointed that water has widely-accepted standards for contamination, while soil does not. Chairman Virginia Brackett said a monitoring well is smaller and less expensive than a household well.

Brackett does not expect solar panels will contaminate soil or water. Mitnik pointed out some solar installations are deliberately placed on contaminated ground that cannot be used for farming or other purposes.

Requirements for inspections during and after construction were modified substantially. Of the proposed requirement for weekly inspections during construction, Mitnik, a retired codes enforcement officer, said he did not know what a CEO would look for every week. As for monthly inspections during operations, Brackett said nothing happens on a solar site.

Brackett reacted similarly to an audience member’s suggestion of an emergency response plan: for what, foxes killing mice? The draft ordinance requires the operating company to train Vassalboro firefighters before operations begin and to maintain access to the fire chief’s satisfaction.

Provisions requiring immediate notice to the town if the panels stopped generating electricity were deleted as board members accepted the ReVision argument that in addition to planned maintenance shutdowns, solar panels “cease to produce electricity every day between sunset and sunrise.”

As the discussion ended, board member Douglas Phillips told the audience he did not think changes made were substantial enough to require another review by the town attorney, but Town Manager Aaron Miller could decide to consult her.

Phillips reminded audience members that in addition to ordinance requirements, the planning board can attach conditions to any permit approved, whenever board members find they are needed to meet local conditions.

Planning board members had two other items on their March 7 agenda. They postponed action on a shoreland application on Birch Point Road, Webber Pond, because the applicant was not present.

They approved a second six-month extension on SunVest’s permit for a solar farm on Webber Pond Road, adding a requirement that when the company gets the connectivity permit from Central Maine Power Company it is waiting for, the town is to have a copy.

Board members decided that the six-month town-wide moratorium on new solar development voters approved in November 2022 did not prevent them from extending a pre-existing permit.

The next regular Vassalboro Planning Board meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 4.

On April 4, “We’re not going to do solar; we’re done,” Brackett said.


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