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State approves 75-acre solar energy facility in Waterford

Waterford — The Connecticut Siting Council last week approved a controversial plan to install a 75-acre facility with almost 46,000 solar panels between Oil Mill and Stony brooks.   

While developer GRE Gacrux LLC received its long-sought approval for the property at 117 Oil Mill Road, local environmental group Save the River-Save the Hills was not as pleased. Originally proposed by Greenskies Clean Energy in 2018, the company’s application was initially rejected by the council after Waterford and STR-STH raised concerns ranging from the potential impact on wildlife to clear-cutting dozens of acres of forest.

“STR-STH is very disappointed with the CSC approval of the Waterford solar energy project,” STR-STH Vice President Deb Moshier-Dunn said. “The ‘yes’ vote from the CSC declares that the project will not have an adverse impact to the environment, but that declaration doesn't make it true in the real world. STR-STH has given the CSC volumes of information showing that the stormwater mitigation plan for this project is not robust enough to protect the surrounding streams from considerable stormwater runoff.”

Moshier-Dunn and STR-STH argued that though solar projects are an important addition to Connecticut’s energy portfolio, “We strongly feel that trading off one environmental issue for another is not good policy" she said about cutting down the forest. 

After the siting council's initial denial, GRE filed a motion in January to modify its plan, saying its revised site plan had addressed the council's original concerns. The council then considered information from documents, hearings, exhibits and correspondence, eventually deciding that the developer’s revisions were sufficient. Rather than the original 98 acres, the project now would cover 75 acres of space. The council voted 3-1 last week to approve the plan. 

In developing the revised application, GRE hired an engineering firm from Massachusetts to rework the application to decrease its impact on wildlife and improve the stormwater management design, in part by incorporating state Department  of Energy and Environmental Protection guidance and comments from stormwater program staff.

GRE performed additional on-site geotechnical studies, incorporated site stabilization measures, and conducted additional wildlife surveys. The new plan also proposes to decrease the size of the project from 55,692 solar panels to approximately 45,976. The developer has said the project could power more than 3,000 homes, helping Connecticut meet its emissions-reduction targets of 45% below 2001 levels by 2030.

The council ruled that the project would not have a "substantial adverse environmental effect" and would not create unreasonable pollution or impair natural resources. 

STR-STH disagreed, citing the possible negative effects to local trout from clear-cutting the land.

“We feel that the final stormwater mitigation plan is still inadequate to capture the runoff from 75 acres of clear-cut land,” Moshier-Dunn said. “As a consequence, Oil Mill Brook and Stony Brook, two brooks currently supporting brown and brook trout, will have a high potential of being adversely impacted through its stormwater discharges, which would introduce larger volumes of warmer, more nutrient-enriched water containing more sediments than these streams receive from the current forested landscape.”

Moshier-Dunn has argued that the developer has “a bad track record” when it comes to developing solar projects, pointing to an East Lyme project developed by a company subsidiary in 2014. Because of a deficient stormwater management system, resident John Bialowans Jr. alleged his property, which sits downstream from the Walnut Hill Road development, was damaged by large amounts of stormwater runoff, destroying stream habitats for trout.

Bialowans sued in New London Superior Court in 2017, but a judge dismissed the case last December.

Moshier-Dunn said STR-STH is advocating for "stringent stormwater management," and that the organization became involved in the attempt to build the solar facility as a way of trying to ensure low-impact development.

Steve Trinkaus, a civil engineer hired by the conservation organization, has said he does not believe the developer has adequately calculated the amount of stormwater runoff that would be generated by the development.

GRE attorney Lee Hoffman wrote in a Feb. 26 letter to the siting council that STR-STH's claims are baseless and “troubling.”

Still, STR-STH is amenable to working with GRE in the future.

“Now that the contentious (Connecticut Siting Council) process is over, and the project is moving forward, we are open to talking to the (developer) again, as we did at the very beginning in 2018,” Moshier-Dunn said. “We think our opposition has resulted in some positive differences in this project. These include reducing the site clearing from 98 to 75 acres and improved site engineering design, although not enough, in our belief.”

s.spinella@theday.com

 

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