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Siting Council hears revised plan, environmental concerns on proposed Waterford solar facility

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Waterford — The Connecticut Siting Council held a virtual public hearing and evidentiary session Tuesday for a petition to build a solar facility in town.

Originally proposed by Greenskies Clean Energy in 2018, the company’s application was denied by the Siting Council after Waterford and Save the River-Save the Hills raised concerns ranging from the potential impact on wildlife to clear-cutting dozens of acres of forest. The developer, GRE Gacrux LLC, says the revised site plan has addressed those concerns.

Greenskies, a Connecticut company co-founded by former state Sen. Art Linares, a Republican from Westbrook, was acquired in December 2017 by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Clean Focus Yield Limited. Greenskies submitted a request to reopen the effort to build the facility in late January, as well as a new petition outlining details of the project.

Rather than the original 98 acres, the project now would cover 75 acres of space, which is part of a larger 152-acre site owned by Rosalie Irene Maguire and Todd Carl Willis between the Oil Mill and Stony brooks. The developer hired VHB, an engineering firm from Massachusetts, to rework the application to decrease its impact on wildlife and improve the stormwater management design.

The new plan also proposes to decrease the size of the project from 55,692 solar panels to 45,976. According to Greenskies Vice President of Marketing Jeff Hintzke, the project would generate 16 megawatts of energy, which can power more than 3,000 homes, helping Connecticut meet its emissions-reduction targets of 45% below 2001 levels by 2030. Developers are now providing for 10 acre-feet of basin storage instead of the initial 2.8 acre-feet. The site would use Eversource Energy’s existing substation at 325 Waterford Parkway North.

On Tuesday, VHB Project Engineer Steve Kochis and Greenskies representatives fielded questions from Siting Council members, the town of Waterford and Save the River-Save the Hills about developers’ plans to ensure construction would abide by stormwater management guidelines and avoid harming wetlands and rare species.

Kochis admitted Tuesday that the site design could be altered in the future. Town Planner Abby Piersall acknowledged Wednesday that since the site plan is subject to change, town officials are waiting to see if all their questions are answered before weighing in further.

“We’re looking at a sensitive site in a sensitive area, and the watershed, within the context of our plan of conservation and development while keeping in mind the surrounding infrastructure,” Piersall said Wednesday. “Our comments to the Council focus on those issues and raise red flags that we thought warranted further consideration.”

Kochis said no stormwater basin is within 3,000 feet of Oil Mill Brook, and the portion of the project that drained to the brook has been removed. He said developers have taken precautions to protect Stony Brook.

Both brooks are considered “critically important” to maintaining the health and functions of the surrounding watershed area, according to STR-STH and the town, as they drain into the Niantic River.

Save the River-Save the Hills Vice President Deb Moshier-Dunn has argued that Greenskies 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. alleges 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 has said she is worried what a potentially ill-planned stormwater management system and clear-cutting dozens of acres of land could mean for the health of the brooks and the river, which lies just 4,000 feet downstream from the proposed development.

On Wednesday, Moshier-Dunn said she was pleased that council members asked questions related to stormwater design, which she said is lacking. She said Save the River-Save the Hills is advocating for "stringent stormwater management," and that the organization became involved in Greenskies' 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 Greenskies has adequately calculated the amount of stormwater runoff that would be generated by the development.

GRE Gacrux attorney Lee Hoffman wrote in a Feb. 26 letter to Siting Council Executive Director Melanie Bachman that Save the River-Save the Hills' claims are baseless and “troubling.”

“The vast majority of the statements made in its February 12, 2020, letter are unsupported and in many instances are incorrect,” Hoffman wrote.

Some commenters during the public hearing echoed Save the River-Save the Hills' concerns, such as lifelong East Lyme resident Michelle Williams.

“I am a supporter of clean energy and I live in a home with solar panels,” Williams said. “I care a lot about the environment, I care about clean energy, but I also care about the health of the river, and how the Niantic River’s health further impacts the health of Niantic Bay and Long Island Sound.”

Williams said she feared what may happen if runoff mitigation efforts were not maintained.

“While I oppose this application due to its location and the forest cover that it will remove from the watershed, I ask that if the siting council chooses to grant this application that a lifetime stormwater and runoff maintenance agreement be developed with firm goals, objectives and penalties,” she concluded.

Some concurred with Williams, but other commenters supported the developer's efforts because of the added solar power.

June comments from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection were included for the Siting Council’s consideration. DEEP is in favor of solar power but recognizes the possible environmental impact of development.

“Bringing grid-scale renewable energy projects online is an important step forward towards a cheaper, cleaner, and more reliable energy future for the ratepayers of Connecticut as we move to decarbonize our electric grid,” DEEP’s letter reads. As a result of DEEP staff recommendations, “the petitioner has pulled construction away from the property boundaries and proposes to install 15 stormwater management basins throughout the project. The site plans indicate that spillways, energy dissipaters, and level spreaders will be used to slow the velocity of stormwater and eliminate point discharge.”

The Siting Council will continue the evidentiary session on Aug. 4 at 1 p.m. via Zoom.

s.spinella@theday.com

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