Mt. Philo summit’s westward view protected

The top of Mt. Philo on June 24. Photo by John Miller.

A serious blow has been dealt to a Vermont company’s plans to build solar panels in Charlotte. On July 21, the Public Utility Commission adopted a proposed decision denying the company’s permit, thereby casting a potentially permanent shadow over the project.

Peck Electric had hoped to build a 650-panel solar array along the eastern edge of Route 7, in a field just south of State Park Road, precisely eight-tenths of a mile from Mt. Philo Park. The town and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources opposed the project because they said it would have stood directly in the summit’s westward view, marring the scenery and therefore compromising public enjoyment of the park.

Peck Electric first filed for the permit in 2015. At that time, the Vermont Public Service Commission flagged the project for potential conflict with several ordnances and assigned John Gehard as a hearing officer to investigate the case.

In May, after two years of hearings, site visits and motions, Gehard returned a proposed decision advising that the board deny the application request on two grounds: that the project would interfere with the public’s use and enjoyment of Mt. Philo State Park and that it would adversely affect the aesthetics of the area in violation of Vermont ordnances.

All parties filed comment on the proposed decision on June 13, and on July 21 the board upheld the proposed decision. The commission made its decision based solely on the grounds that the installation would interfere with public enjoyment of the park and therefore issues of aesthetics required no attention.

“We are keenly aware of the unique nature and special status of Mount Philo State Park and what a valuable natural resource and significant public investment it is for the state,” said the report. “The record is replete with examples of Mount Philo’s special features: it is the oldest park in the state park system; it is one of the four most visited state parks in Vermont; it is widely renowned for its views west from the summit of the pastoral landscape and of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountain; it is the only state park with a summit easily accessible to all Vermonters, regardless of age or physical abilities. In addition to the unique nature of the Park, we find the testimony and arguments of [the Agency of Natural Resources], the governmental entity charged with preserving and protecting Vermont’s state park system, to be particularly persuasive in determining that the Project would have an undue adverse effect on Mount Philo State Park.”

Peck Electric’s president Jeff Peck offered comment on the commission’s decision. “While Peck Electric respects the Public Utility Commission’s process, we are disappointed in the decision,” Peck said. “Peck Electric works hard to accommodate local concerns when planning projects like this one, and we genuinely believed this was a well-sited and well-planned solar array.”

He disagreed with the assessment made by the hearing officer and adopted by the commission, saying the scale of the project was modest and the distance from Mount Philo was sufficient. “If anything, I believe a small-scale clean energy project would have complemented the vista, and served as a small visual representation of the value that Vermonters place on buying locally produced clean energy.”

While all parties have 20 days to file motions, Peck said the company is still reviewing its options and hasn’t decided whether it will take further action.