Solar project awaits state decision on site near Mt. Philo

The westward view from Mt. Philo across Charlotte, Lake Champlain to New York state and the Adirondacks. Photo credit: Vermont State Parks.

A state board is expected to rule shortly on whether to reject a large solar array that Charlotte officials say will spoil panoramic views from Mt. Philo State Park and the surrounding area.

Vermont hearing officer John C. Gerhard recommends denying a request from Peck Electric Inc. of South Burlington to install 650 ground-mounted solar array panels at 5721 Ethan Allen Highway, also known as U.S. Route 7. The site is eight-tenths of a mile from Mt. Philo; park visitors looking west toward Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains would see the solar array in the middle of the foreground of the view.

The Public Utility Commission, formerly known as the Public Service Board, must decide whether to accept or modify Gerhard’s 17-page report. “It’s under active review,” commission clerk Judith Whitney told The Citizen this week.

It is unclear when the three state commissioners might rule on the request for a certificate of public good, which would allow the solar array to go forward. When the decision is issued, any unhappy party could appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court.

Gerhard said he recommended rejecting the project because it “would materially interfere with the public’s use and enjoyment of Mount Philo State Park” and “have an undue adverse effect on the aesthetics of the area.”

Both sides were allowed to respond to his proposed order and the commission is reviewing those filings now.

Jeffrey Peck of Peck Electric did not respond to phone messages. His lawyer, Justin Barnhard of the Burlington law firm Dinse Knapp McAndrew, said his client disputes the proposed report and the impact on Mt. Philo, Vermont’s oldest state-owned park. “We filed a set of objections to the proposed ruling,” he said.

Barnhard said the decision was faulty because there was a feeling that “just because you could see it, that it would be shocking to the general public.”

The town’s attorney, Eric Derry of Stitzel, Page & Fletcher in Burlington, said Charlotte believes the hearing officer’s findings are on solid ground.

Charlotte Town Administrator Dean Bloch said the project would affect both the view from the park and along Route 7, which is designated as part of the Vermont Scenic Byways.

The project has been in the public eye for almost two years. Peck filed its net-metering application Sept. 18, 2015. The board ruled May 5, 2016, that the application raised a significant question about aesthetics and assigned Gerhard as a hearing officer. Both the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and the Vermont Department of Public Service attended a prehearing conference on May 17, 2016.

Gerhard visited the site and Mt. Philo State Park on May 23, 2016. On July 15, 2016 an order was issued to expand the scope of the review to include consideration of the solar array’s impact on the park. The technical hearing was conducted Nov. 29, 2016, and various parties spent the next six weeks filing briefs.

The Findings
Gerhard said the project calls for 650 ground-mounted solar panels standing about 9 feet high at the highest point and spread out in seven rows covering about 1 acre of land.

Established in 1924, Mt. Philo State Park is a popular spot for a wide range of recreational activities, but is probably best known for its western view. It draws more than 50,000 visitors a year and is among the four most visited day-use parks in the state.

Mt. Philo is unique because it has a paved road for visitor access to its 968-foot summit. All other mountaintop parks require a strenuous hike, said Craig Whipple of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.
The state has invested more than $1 million to maintain and operate Mt. Philo and the replacement value of the buildings, roads and water system is estimated at nearly $2 million, Whipple said.

Peck has disputed the project would affect use of the park, and said no studies were offered “suggesting that the project would result in reduction in visits to Mount Philo or reduce revenues to the town, local business or the state.”
“The project would be out of context with its surroundings and would significantly diminish the scenic qualities of the viewshed from the park,” Gerhard wrote. “This project would have an undue adverse effect on the aesthetics and scenic or natural beauty of the area.”

Peck Electric offered to modify the project by reducing its footprint and moving it as far east as possible. That would make the setback about 300 feet from Route 7. Peck also agreed to add 30 arborvitae trees and 30 American hazelnut shrubs on the western side of the project and 12 black willow trees on the eastern side.

Peck said those steps would be enough to mitigate the issues.

Gerhard said that, given the scope of the development, those steps were reasonable to improve the harmony of the project with its surroundings. Gerhard wrote that Peck argued the “proposed project will not offend the sensibilities of the average person.”

Gerhard said evidence shows the town and other public entities “have made significant investments to preserve open space in the town and surrounding Mount Philo, particularly in the western viewshed of the park where there are about 1,800 acres of conserved land.”

The town argued that “the project will materially jeopardize and interfere with the public’s use and enjoyment of the park, given its effects on this view shed.”

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