Solar project proposed off Short Hills Road in Old Lyme raises conservation concerns

Old Lyme — An almost 13-acre solar project proposed off Short Hills Road, just north of Interstate 95 and west of the Three Mile River, would sit close to both town open space and land trust properties.

That has raised some concerns among town officials overseeing those parcels.

The project, which was submitted on Oct. 7 for review by the Connecticut Siting Council, outlines clear-cutting and building a solar array on 12.72 acres of a larger 120-acre site owned by Howard Tooker on Short Hills Road. Tooker’s parcel, which is flat and mostly forested aside from two residential properties on either end. His property abuts the Land Trust’s Lay Preserve, which also adjoins to the McCulloch Family Open Space property.

According to a petition submitted by James Schwartz of Cobb Road LLC, an affiliate of the Essex-based Independence Solar, requesting a declaratory ruling from the siting council, the solar field will be visually “unobtrusive” to the surrounding area and residences because of a “continuous” tree buffer surrounding the property. The project also would be set back more than a half-mile from Short Hills Road and would not be visible to passing cars.

Upon completion, the solar array will take up 11.16 acres, with more than 7,700 individual panels. A 7-foot-tall chain-link security fence will enclose the facility, while the remaining 1.56 acres will be used to establish a meadow to support pollinators, such as butterflies. Cobb Road LLC has negotiated a 25-year lease of the land with Tooker, Schwartz said by phone Tuesday.

The project would generate 1.95 megawatts of power to be sent directly into the Eversource utility system. Because the parcel where the solar field is proposed is transected from west to east by overhead electric lines owned by Eversource, grid infrastructure will not need to be extended to the site, making it "a very efficient location for adding clean energy infrastructure to benefit the local utility network,” the petition said.

“That’s a main reason why we selected this site, because the distribution network is right there,” Schwartz said, explaining that typically his company would have to pay to extend infrastructure. “So locating near (Eversource infrastructure) is a big advantage.”

The project was selected by Eversource and awarded a 15-year contract to participate in its Low Emission Renewable Energy Credit program, helping Connecticut meet its emissions-reduction targets, the petition says. Schwartz said that after the 15-year contract with Eversource expires, Cobb Road LLC will sell generated power on the open market.

According to letters submitted to the siting council this week by William Dunbar and Evan Griswold of the town’s Open Space Commission, as well as by Anne Galliher as a private resident but who is the secretary of the Old Lyme Land Trust’s board of trustees, the site of the proposed solar field is close to both the town’s recently purchased 300-acre McCulloch Family Open Space and the 185-acre Lay Preserve, which is owned by the Land Trust.

In both letters, the writers worry the solar field could interfere with broader plans for creating a continuous greenbelt, becoming an eyesore to those walking through the preserved areas.

“Conservation lands increase greatly in value when they are interconnected with other conservation lands. One parcel of land lost to development at a critical junction can diminish the conservation of surrounding lands,” the letter by Dunbar and Griswold said.

In both letters, all three writers also worried about stormwater runoff and erosion and questioned how that may impact the preserved land.

“The potential for harmful or destructive (stormwater) runoff from the solar site towards the Lay Preserve and specifically impacting its adjoining McCulloch Family Open Space, and other properties, is of utmost concern,” Dunbar and Griswold said. “There are four wetlands and a vernal pool abutting and nearby properties that may be adversely affected.”

Other concerns, such as herbicide use and seeding in the area, as well as fire protection, also were mentioned in the letters.

Dunbar, Griswold and Galliher all wrote they were not opposed to the project, but only want to ensure that the plan is well monitored and enforced.

“The site appears to have been well chosen. It is relatively flat, already partially clear, near the Eversource distribution line, and planned within a continuous tree buffer,” Galliher wrote. “I am hopeful that the solar field will not be visible to the Old Lyme Land Trust preserve visitors in any season."

According to state statutes, the siting council has final jurisdiction over whether the project can proceed. With council approval, Schwartz would not need to obtain any land-use permissions from the town.

As a formality, Schwartz said he held a meeting with First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder in July to introduce and explain the project to her. Siting council Executive Director Melanie Bachman said by phone this week that solar developers are not required to meet with town executives before submitting project plans to the siting council for review, though they often do to be communicative.

Reemsnyder did not respond to a call made by The Day to discuss the proposal.

After a developer submits a project to the siting council, the council must notify the town where the project is proposed. The town then is responsible for contacting various town officials about the project to gather comments, questions and concerns, to then submit back to the council for review. The comment period for review extends 30 days after an application is submitted, according to statutes, and ended on Wednesday for this particular project.

In their letter, Dunbar and Griswold lamented the short commenting period and said the Open Space Commission had not been contacted by the town about the project.

Schwartz maintained Tuesday by phone that the project has been well planned and that his engineers are abiding by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s new, more stringent standards for stormwater management, though those requirements are not yet being enforced.

Bachman, in a letter detailing that she had received Galliher’s comments, said DEEP retains final jurisdiction over stormwater management and administers permit programs to regulate stormwater pollution. She said the developer would need to obtain a permit from DEEP in order to proceed with the project.

According to a letter Bachman wrote to Galliher, the council “carefully considers all of the facts contained in the record” before reaching a final decision on a petition. She also wrote that the petition soon will be placed on a council meeting agenda for discussion and decision. According to a siting council calendar, the panel has until April 4 to make a decision about the petition, but Bachman said a decision could be made sooner.

m.biekert@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of Howard Tooker's name.

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