Vassalboro planners use bulk of meeting to discuss commercial solar development

by Mary Grow

Despite a three-item agenda plus a spill-over item from the Oct. 13 select board meeting, Vassalboro Planning Board members spent an hour and a half of their long Nov. 1 meeting discussing proposed regulations for commercial solar developments.

They plan to return to the draft solar provisions, currently seen as a section of the site review ordinance rather than a separate ordinance, at their Dec. 6 meeting. They do not presently intend to schedule a special meeting only for ordinance discussion.

Their first actions on Nov. 1 were to approve:

  • An application to expand and rebuild a non-conforming structure at 30 Austin Road in the Three Mile Pond shoreland, with the understanding it will be enlarged by less than 30 percent and will not be any closer to the water.
  • Acceptance of the decommissioning plan for the proposed commercial solar development at 2579 Riverside Drive as meeting the requirement set at their Oct. 4 meeting (see the Oct. 13 issue of The Town Line, p. 2).

The third agenda item was listed as a presentation by Brittney Krebsbach of Novel Energy, the company planning to apply for a permit for a commercial solar farm on the west side of Main Street (Route 32) north of Duratherm Window.

Instead of Krebsbach, Patrick Zander represented Minnesota-based Novel Energy Solutions. He explained that he had been told that morning to “put a face” to the company. He asked that a preliminary application be accepted, so review could proceed if Vassalboro voters approved the solar development moratorium on the Nov. 8 local ballot.

Zander had not been told that the moratorium would prohibit any action, even if an application were in process. Nor had he been told that Novel had submitted no application. When he looked at the preliminary information planning board members have had for weeks, he said it was “way out of date.”

Codes officer Paul Mitnik said Novel had emailed something last week. When he replied that he could not open the document(s), he got no answer.

Zander said the revised plan reduces the size of the planned development by about 50 percent. Setback from Outlet Stream is increased and the project “won’t touch” the Kennebec Water District pipeline that crosses the property.

Novel has its Central Maine Power Company interconnection agreement (IA), Zander said. Board chairman Virginia Brackett was surprised, as several other Vassalboro projects have been delayed by lack of an IA.

Before he left, Zander offered information resources for the proposed solar ordinance. After he left, board members expressed sympathy for the difficult position his company’s lack of preparation put him in.

“Somebody at least owes him a beer,” Brackett suggested.

Although Brackett said the Novel Energy application wouldn’t reappear until the summer of 2023 if the moratorium passed Nov. 8, audience members who oppose Novel’s project – and supported the moratorium – insisted on speaking. Board member Douglas Phillips encouraged the rest of the board to let them.

Ann White and Linnea Ash Hill distributed three pages listing problems with solar panels, and the websites they said support their concerns. They claimed that property values drop within a mile of a solar project; that toxins from the panels will harm area wildlife and water quality in Outlet Stream and China Lake; and that decommissioning a system will result in release of more toxic chemicals.

“We can have a solar farm lots of other places. We don’t need it there,” Hill said.

When select board member Chris French asked from the audience if the new ordinance should also ban solar panels on people’s roofs, several people said, “No.” No one said yes.

Main Street residents also spoke at the select board’s Sept. 29 public hearing on the moratorium ordinance (see the Oct. 6 issue of The Town Line, p. 3).

The problem left over from the Oct. 13 select board meeting was the claimed lack of a buffer at the newly-opened brewery at 772 Cross Hill Road (see the Oct. 20 issue of The Town Line, p. 2). Neighbors Rick and Terry Dawson, and Peter and Mary Beth Soule again asked what they can do to ensure construction of a buffer, required by the planning board when the business was approved.

Mitnik offered his opinion that enough trees had been planted to meet the board’s requirement. The neighbors disagreed.

Planning board members said repeatedly they are not enforcers. They said if Mitnik’s response was not satisfactory, the town manager should be asked to call a meeting of the board of appeals.

The Nov. 1 preliminary discussion of the planned solar ordinance focused on setbacks and buffers. Planning board members discussed a multitude of probable complications.

By the end of the discussion, they envisioned a project, meaning the solar panels and associated equipment, inside a fence; a required distance between the fence around the project and the property line; and a vegetated buffer between the fence and the property line.

French suggested requiring that the fence be at least 100-feet from the property line or 150-feet from the nearest residence, whichever distance was greater. Board members approved, for now.

The vegetated buffer was one of the problems. Its purpose would be to screen the project inside the fence from neighbors, so a buffer all the way around the property seemed unnecessary. But if the vegetation were trees and if they were close to the fence, they could grow tall enough to shade the solar panels.

A related issue, setbacks from wetlands, was temporarily left to state regulators, with the expectation their information would be shared with town officials. Any commercial solar project over three acres needs a state permit, and French and planning board members believe recently-adopted state regulations require the developer to map and protect wetlands.

Also attending the Nov. 1 meeting was Bob Geaghan, introduced as Vassalboro’s new codes officer. Town Manager Mary Sabins said later that Geaghan is expected to work with Mitnik for the next two months and take over the job in January 2023 so that Mitnik can retire, as he has tried to do several times already.


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