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New group urges stricter regulations for proposed Old Lyme solar project

Old Lyme — The same people raising environmental concerns over an East Lyme solar field are now fighting for tighter regulations on a proposed solar project in Old Lyme.

Organizers who formed the group #SmartSolarCT told The Day on Monday they worry the proposed project off Short Hills Road could threaten abutting preserved lands, as well as nearby wildlife habitats due to ill-planned stormwater runoff mitigation.

They claim that Department of Energy and Environmental Protection holds solar developers to lower standards than other construction projects and say that when forests are cut down to make way for solar arrays, environmental disruptions may lead to other issues downstream from the solar site.

The Connecticut Siting Council, tasked with approving or denying the project, recently named #SmartSolarCT an intervenor in the project, allowing the group to submit a bevy of questions and concerns to the council, ranging from plans to address stormwater runoff to the site’s location.

The Siting Council now will consider both #SmartSolarCT’s questions and concerns, as well as responses to them from solar field developer Cobb Road LLC before making a decision before April 4, 2020, on whether the project should proceed.

Members of #SmartSolarCT say that because of significant storm runoff issues caused by a different solar field built by a Greenskies Renewable Energy subsidiary in East Lyme in 2014, their organization is working to educate the public, as well as the Siting Council, about the adverse effects solar fields may have on nearby forests, streams and vernal pools due to clear-cutting on land upstream.

“Our hope isn’t to get (the project) denied,” said the group’s leader, Deb Moshier-Dunn, who is also the vice president of East Lyme’s Save the River-Save the Hills group. “We are just trying to make sure they do it right. We don’t want to deny this farmer the right to use his property how he wants to.”

The almost 13-acre solar project, proposed by solar developer Cobb Road LLC — an affiliate of the larger Independence Solar LLC of Essex — outlines clear-cutting forested land to build a solar array on the western part of a 120-acre property off Short Hills Road.

The property, which sits just north of Interstate 95 and west of the Three Mile River and is owned by Howard Tooker, is “relatively” flat and forested, according to Cobb Road LLC’s application. It abuts the Old Lyme Land Trust’s Lay Preserve, which adjoins to the McCulloch Family Open Space property.

The project would generate 1.95 megawatts of power to be sent directly into the Eversource utility system. It 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.

Made up of two other members — Southbury-based civil engineer Steven Trinkaus and retired Dominion Energy fisheries biologist Don Danilla of East Lyme — #SmartSolarCT was born out of the Save the River-Save the Hills group after Moshier-Dunn led a successful effort with the group to stop a larger proposed solar field in Waterford last year. #SmartSolarCT is not being financed by Save the River-Save the Hills, Moshier-Dunn said Monday, because the Old Lyme solar project is not within the Niantic River watershed, which Save the River seeks to protect.

Both Dunn and Trinkaus, in separate interviews, argued by phone Monday that, based on documents Cobb Road LLC submitted to the Siting Council proposing the project, the developer has "grossly underestimated" the amount of stormwater runoff that may be produced by the array and has not adequately planned to mitigate that runoff.

Trinkaus claimed that due to the developer’s miscalculations, and because the proposed property has a “moderate slope,” much larger water catch basins are needed on the site than the four basins presently planned for the site, to prevent flooding downstream in Old Lyme’s preserved lands.

“A problem may not occur on day one, but the wetlands (downhill) will eventually see impacts in some form or another if larger basins aren’t installed,” Trinkaus said.

Speaking about such concerns to The Day last month, Cobb Road LLC principal James Schwartz said the project has been well planned and that his engineers are abiding by DEEP's new, more stringent standards for stormwater management, though those requirements are not yet being enforced.

Schwartz maintained those statements in an email Tuesday, adding, “We are absolutely committed to designing and building an excellent project, including ensuring that the storm-water management controls are effective and perform as expected. We believe in protecting the environment, which is why we develop clean, renewable energy projects.”

DEEP has final oversight and say on stormwater runoff management practices, according to the Siting Council’s website.

Neither #SmartSolarCT nor Cobb Road LLC will be allowed to speak or argue before the Siting Council before it makes its decision on the project. Other Old Lyme preservation groups, such as the Old Lyme Open Space Commission, also will not be allowed to speak publicly before the council despite requesting to do so as part of comments it submitted to the council about the project in November.

“The three of us are doing this as concerned citizens. We are trying to show the siting council and DEEP that unless the ground is perfectly flat, water will run downhill. It will make channels. It will erode away the land,” Moshier-Dunn said. “For #SmartSolarCT, we are really focusing on trying to bring awareness and educating people, including the solar companies, that these big installations are creating runoff both during and post construction and that DEEP doesn’t have appropriate regulations overseeing it.”

m.biekert@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the name of the preservation group which requested a public hearing with the Connecticut Siting Council.

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