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Old Lyme solar project moves forward despite environmental concerns

Old Lyme — An 11-acre solar project proposed off Short Hills Road is moving forward after the Connecticut Siting Council approved the project last week.

The Siting Council, which has jurisdiction over approving proposed solar projects in Connecticut, approved the project after solar developer James Schwartz of Cobb Road LLC, an affiliate of the Essex-based Independence Solar, submitted a petition requesting a declaratory ruling from the council in October.

His petition was considered by the council on Jan. 2, along with reviews from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, a bevvy of questions from the project’s intervenor, #SmartSolarCT, as well as letters expressing concerns about the project and its location from the Old Lyme Open Space Commission and Anne Galliher as a private resident, but who is also the secretary of the Old Lyme Land Trust's board of trustees, among other considerations.

According to Schwartz’ petition, the project would be set back more than a half-mile from Short Hills Road on a 120-acre property owned by Howard Tooker. The proposed property abuts the Old Lyme Land Trust’s Lay Preserve, which adjoins to the McCulloch Family Open Space property.

Schwartz told The Day in November that Cobb Road LLC has negotiated a 25-year lease with Tooker and the project would generate 1.95 megawatts of power to be sent directly into the Eversource utility system. The project 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.

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.

As part of its review, the council granted the group #SmartSolarCT intervenor status on the project in December, essentially allowing the group to submit pages of questions pressing the developer and engineers about all aspects of the project for the council to review before making its decision. #SmartSolarCT — born out of the Waterford-based Save the River-Save the Hills group, but which is separate, recently was formed and is made up of three members: Save the River-Save the Hills Vice President Deb Moshier-Dunn, Southbury-based civil engineer Steven Trinkaus and retired Dominion Energy fisheries biologist Don Danilla of East Lyme. Moshier-Dunn has previously spoken out against other solar projects regarding their stormwater runoff management practices, including a larger array proposed and put on hold in Waterford last year.

As part of its ruling last week, the Siting Council wrote that Cobb Road LLC still must get a general permit from DEEP regulating the site's stormwater management and submit to the council construction site plans that comply with a DEEP-approved Stormwater Pollution Control Plan, as well as other requirements, before proceeding with construction.

Despite that, #SmartSolarCT members said Friday they still worried their concerns, specifically those with the project's proposed stormwater runoff mitigation efforts, would not be adequately addressed.

#SmartSolarCT alleges that Cobb Road LLC’s engineer, All Points Technology Corporation, has not adequately predicted the amount of stormwater runoff that may be generated due to the impervious surfaces of the arrays and, because of that, alleges the developer has not adequately planned enough, or the correct kind, of water catch basins to mitigate and control the runoff.

Schwartz was not immediately available Friday to address #SmartSolarCT’s concerns but has told the Day in the past 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.

Trinkaus said that if Cobb Road LLC does not address the problem he is alleging, streams running along Tooker’s property will erode and create sedimentation deposits further downstream, potentially damaging wetlands and nearby vernal pools and could eventually have adverse impacts on the nearby Land Trust property, as well as town-owned open space.

“It’s not something that’s going to occur necessarily today. But if they work the site in a certain way and get rainfall on bare soil, you could very easily see destructive issues in Old Lyme,” Trinkaus said by phone Friday.

#SmartSolarCT said it will continue to follow the issue closely and advocate generally for tighter stormwater runoff regulations with DEEP.

DEEP on Wednesday released a guidance document spelling out suggested best practices for solar developers and engineers to follow when developing stormwater runoff mitigation plans. The document is included in a proposed draft of DEEP's new permitting standards regulating stormwater management for construction. In that document, DEEP writes that it is considering the “large amount of impervious surface inherent in the construction of a large-scale solar array,” which “entails challenges not encountered in traditional development projects.”

“If not properly managed through appropriate design and mitigation measures, stormwater discharged during and after the construction of solar arrays can be a significant source of pollution resulting from increased runoff, erosion, and sedimentation, which can adversely impact wetlands or other natural resources,” DEEP says in the document. 

However, it does not spell out formal regulations that developers must follow.

“The Department is willing to consider alternative approaches,” DEEP wrote. “To be approved, however, any proposal must address the issues noted in this Guidance as well as demonstrate compliance with the requirements of the general permit. This guidance is provided for informational purposes only and is not meant to modify or replace any provision of the general permit or any applicable laws or regulation.”

Both DEEP and the Council on Environmental Quality were required to review the proposed project and offer feedback to the Siting Council before it made its decision on Jan. 2. In DEEP’s review, environmental analyst Linda Brunza wrote that the developer will register for DEEP’s general permit addressing stormwater discharges, but that the “critical consideration” will be for the developer to “maintain site stabilization during construction,” which also will be reviewed during the permitting process.

m.biekert@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects which groups and individuals wrote comments to the Connecticut Siting Council during its public comment period last fall. It also corrects the town where Save the River-Save the Hills is based.

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