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Residents, officials oppose solar farm proposed in North Stonington

North Stonington — A Tennessee company is seeking approval from the Connecticut Siting Council to install 28,971 solar panels on one-third of the 157 acres of forested land it owns off Route 184 west of Boombridge Road.

A subsidiary of Silicon Ranch Corp., which is based in Nashville and operates 135 solar facilities in 15 states, plans to clear 47 of the 157 residential zoned acres for the panels, which would measure 6 feet, 10 inches by 3 feet, 5 inches. The site comprises five lots, one of which is north of Route 184 and the other four to the south of the road.

The panels would generate 9.9 megawatts of electricity and the power would be sold to Eversource and United Illuminating. Silicon Ranch officials say the project will not only generate clean, renewable energy at a stable price but create temporary construction jobs and generate tax revenue for the town. Silicon Ranch also uses a procedure called Regenerative Energy, in which it partners with farmers to use land post-installation for cultivation of plants for livestock grazing.

At last Thursday's Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, commission member Robert Kappes grilled Silicon Ranch officials about the project, asking why they were clearing forest when they say their purpose is to benefit the environment. He also asked them if they considered brownfield sites across the state and said they were undertaking the project to make a profit.

"Anyone who runs a business, runs it to make a profit," replied Peter Candelaria, Silicon Ranch's chief development officer, adding the company is doing its best to bring the best value to both the utilities it will serve and the community.

"I thought you were doing this for the environment," Kappes shot back. 

Silicon Ranch officials pointed out they purchased the project from another developer who in 2016 had the site preselected by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to construct a solar facility on the land. Additional land to the north was added to the site after the initial DEEP approval but also was approved by the agency.   

"We bought an approved solar facility and are bringing it to fruition," Candelaria said.  

"You bought something, you didn't know what you bought and now you're looking for North Stonington to bail you out," charged Kappes, who said completing the project benefits Silicon Ranch and not the people of the town.  

Commission members questioned why the company could not use the southern portion of the site, which was once home to a gravel pit, for the panels instead of forested areas. Silicon Ranch officials, though, said there are important wetland and vernal pools in the southern area.  

During the meeting, First Selectman Mike Urgo pointed out there are other types of projects that could go on the land that could be more disruptive than a solar farm but urged Silicon Ranch to be open to making changes suggested by residents. He said the town would be submitting comments to the siting council outlining the concerns of the community.      

Resident Catherine Maxwell, who lives next door to the property, said that with the cutting of trees she is concerned about increased wind and noise from the highway, as well as glare from the panels and the view out her back window. She also questioned if Silicon Ranch would try to comply with zoning regulations, such as buffers. Other residents criticized various aspects of the project from the potential effect of the project on water supplies, drainage and views to not wanting Chinese-made panels or sheep on the land.         

The project, though, does not need to obtain local zoning approval. The siting council will determine if the project has a significant environmental impact on the property. If not, a permit will be issued. 

The siting council also could decide to hold a public hearing on the application, although one is not required. Comments from residents and the town can be submitted to the siting council through March 27. Residents also can file to be intervenors in the case.

At the end of the meeting, project attorney Kenneth Baldwin pledged to get answers to questions asked by commission members and residents and said Silicon Ranch was looking forward to working with residents.     

Information about the petition, #1443, can be found at bit.ly/nsctsolarfarm.

If the siting council approves the project, Silicon Ranch said work would begin in the last three months of this year and be completed by June 2022. The company said panels would have a 40-year service life and would be removed and recycled at the end of their life.

Another solar project — with 58,000 panels on a 125-acre site on Ella Wheeler Road — was approved in 2017 but has not yet been built.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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