Proposed view-blocking solar array put on hold

Solar panels, similar to these, are proposed for the once acre site. Courtesy photo.

A Vermont company’s plan to build solar panels in Charlotte was dealt a serious setback after a recent proposed decision recommended that the Vermont Public Service Board deny the permit for the project. Peck Electric, a solar electric company in South Burlington, seeks to build an array less than a mile from the base of the Mt. Philo, but those plans might stand at odds with Vermont state law.

Though ground has yet to be broken on the project, the effort is already a year and a half in the making. Peck Electric initially filed for the permit in September 2015, though it wasn’t until the following May that the board flagged the proposal for potential conflicts with several state laws. This set off a year of hearings and site visits with representatives from Peck Electric, the Town of Charlotte and several Vermont State agencies.

At the heart of the issue is the westward view from the summit of Mt. Philo, which offers an unobstructed panorama of Vermont pastures and peaks, Lake Champlain and the distant Adirondacks. That view has been popular since the park was established in 1924, and it now draws 50,000 visitors annually, making Mt. Philo the fourth-most popular state park in Vermont.

The proposed array—650 ground-mounted panels spread over one acre—would sit in the middle of that view. The town contends that, if built, the array would be out of character with the surrounding landscape, which the town has gone to great lengths to protect. The panels would mar the view and ultimately compromise the park’s popularity.

Peck Electric has taken efforts to mitigate the project’s impact by proposing to plant trees and bushes to screen the array from view. Those efforts, however, might not be enough. John Gerhard, the hearing officer appointed by the board, concluded that the array would still be fully visible from the summit, even once the proposed trees grew to maturity.

As a result, the project would violate two statutes: It would “interfere with the public’s use and enjoyment of Mt. Philo State Park” and also “have an undue adverse effect on the aesthetics of the area.”

Though this is not a final decision, if the board does not modify it, it could spell the end of the project.

“We will file comments asking the board to decline some of the proposed findings from the hearing officer,” said Peck Electric’s lawyer, Justin Barnard. Beyond that, Barnard said, it’s too early to speculate on a next move should the board uphold the decision.

Town Administrator Dean Bloch said the town is pleased with the proposed decision. Bloch also said the town takes no issue with Peck Electric itself or with the idea of giving a home to solar arrays elsewhere in town, so long as proposed arrays fall in line with the Town Plan. “With the right location, I think the Selectboard would be very supportive.”