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Controversial solar project is back on the table

Waterford — The developers who proposed a 75-acre solar project off Oil Mill Road that state officials rejected two years ago have asked the state to reconsider its decision.

Opponents, including town leaders and a local environmental group, say they are again ready to speak against the project and remain concerned about its potential environmental impacts. The developers, though, say they’ve revised the project to better address those concerns.

Originally proposed by Greenskies Clean Energy in 2018, the proposal's application was denied by the state Siting Council after the town and Save the River-Save the Hills raised concerns ranging from the potential impact on wildlife to clearcutting dozens of acres of forest.

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 in late January, as well as a new petition outlining details of the project. The Siting Council is scheduled to decide Feb. 27 on whether to reopen Greenskies’ application and hold a public hearing on the plan.

Greenskies’ petition argues that its developers and newly hired engineering consultants VHB of Massachusetts have carefully addressed the issues brought forward by both the town and STR-STH by redesigning the project to lessen the impact on wildlife and the impact of a poor stormwater management design.

The new plan decreases the size of the project from 55,692 solar panels to 45,976. According to Greenskies VP 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.

“We have been going through what I would say is a very rigorous process,” Hintzke said. “One of the reasons we are petitioning is that we believe we have gone above and beyond what’s required to get approval this time. If we didn’t think we would get approval, we wouldn’t bother.”

Over the next 35 years, the panels would sit on a 152-acre parcel owned by Rosalie Irene Maguire and Todd Carl Willis. The land is located between the Oil Mill and Stony brooks, both of which are “critically important” to maintaining the health and functions of the surrounding watershed area, according to town officials. Both brooks drain into what they’ve described in 2018 letters sent to the Siting Council as “the already impaired Niantic River.”

First Selectman Rob Brule wrote to the Siting Council last week requesting it hold a public hearing on the proposal. The town did not comment on the contents of Greenskies’ application in that letter, but Brule wrote that town officials would if Greenskies’ application were reopened.

In the letter sent to the Council in 2018 advising against the project, Town Planner Abby Piersal wrote, “Maintaining conditions in the tributary watersheds that support the biodiversity and water quality in these streams is a critical concern of the town.”

Protecting those brooks is paramount, said Southbury-based civil engineer Steve Trinkaus, who has worked closely with the STR-STH group to raise awareness statewide about the importance of well-planned stormwater mitigation techniques associated with solar installations.

Trinkaus said he believes Greenskies’ new proposed stormwater plan is still inadequate and “has not materially changed from the original application."

Trinkaus argued that the newly submitted plans “are interchangeable” with those Greenskies submitted to the Siting Council in 2014 when proposing to build a 24-acre solar project in East Lyme, a third of the size of the project proposed in Waterford.

“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” Trinkaus said, explaining that Greenskies has not adequately planned for the amount of runoff that could be produced by the project and claimed the company is not planning to follow standard erosion-control guidelines.

In a recent letter that STR-STH submitted to the Siting Council, Trinkaus and STR-STH Vice President Deb Moshier-Dunn argue that Greenskies has a particularly “poor track record of creating solar installations that don’t have a substantial adverse environmental effect in the state.” The letter specifically points to the company’s history on its 24-acre East Lyme site, built in 2014 by a Greenskies Renewable subsidiary and which is known as the Antares Solar Field.

That same year, East Lyme resident John Bialowans Jr.'s property, which sits downstream from the Antares Solar Field on Walnut Hill, was heavily damaged by large amounts of stormwater runoff coming from the solar installation, he claims, destroying stream habitats for trout.

“The (new) plans are still grossly underestimating the amount of runoff that will be generated by the panels – just like they did in the East Lyme construction disaster,” wrote Trinkaus and Moshier-Dunn. “STR-STH is very disappointed that the Petitioner has not studied the stormwater failure that occurred in East Lyme at their Antares Solar Farm. Much can be learned from reviewing the damage done there.”

Don Danila, a STR-STH fisheries biologist and former environmental consultant for Dominion, agreed, saying, “We are not against green power and we’re not against solar energy power. I put solar panels on the roof of my house last year. I just think there has been a big rush to develop these multiple megawatt projects in Connecticut, and its easy for them to find undeveloped land, clear cut forest, take over productive farmlands and put up thousands and thousands of solar panels. And we just don’t think this is the right place for them.”

Danila, also an East Lyme representative on the Niantic River Watershed Committee, worried how eel grass in the Niantic River, which support scallops and fish, might be affected by increases in stormwater runoff that might come rushing down both Oil Mill and Stony brooks. He noted that additional runoff could bring increased nitrogen levels and other organic matter that could “smother the eel grass.”

“It’s a unique estuary in Connecticut and we want to keep it healthy,” Danila said. “This is a very large development, very close to the Niantic River. And this thing is going to be here for 35 years.”

“But this is the problem, we have to rely on our state agencies,” he continued. “It takes a lot of things out of local control. We have to hope that DEEP will ensure these guys are doing the right thing.”

According to state statutes, the Siting Council has final jurisdiction over whether the project can proceed. With council approval, Greenskies would not need to obtain any land-use permissions from the town. Though the Siting Council does evaluate stormwater management plans as part of its review process, stormwater management falls exclusively under DEEP’s jurisdiction through a General Permit process, Siting Council Director Melanie Bachman said.

The project developer is required to submit an application for a General Permit to DEEP prior to commencement of construction if the Siting Council approves the project, she said.

Responding to worries brought up by STR-STH, Hintzke, speaking on behalf of Greenskies, said, “We are following all the guidelines and regulations around how DEEP has specified for (stormwater management).” He added that Greenskies has been meeting with DEEP employees and curbing its project to meet updated, stricter stormwater regulations. “We are a local company — almost all of our employees live in Connecticut and typically the employees that work here are environmentally conscious and very much want to support local environmental causes. And that includes everything from stormwater runoff to renewable energy, as well as conserving watersheds. We don’t want to slash and burn and cut down trees for no reason. We are local, and our workers are local, and we want to do the best we can for our local community.”

m.biekert@theday.com

 

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