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Utility Regulators Rule Bennington Solar Project Fails To Comply With Town Plan

Lawyer in supreme court court
John Dillon
VPR File
Solar developer Thomas Melone represented himself in a state Supreme Court argument in January. One of his planned Bennington projects was recently rejected by the Public Utility Commission.

The Public Utility Commission has denied a New York developer's bid to build a large solar project in Bennington, saying the project did not comply with the town plan.

Developer Thomas Melone wants to build the 2-megawatt Apple Hill solar project in a wooded area in Bennington that the town defines as being part of a rural conservation district.

The commission said the project would require clearcutting about 10 acres, and would be visible from a nearby state welcome center and the Bennington Battle monument.

Melone said he redesiged the project to reduce its impact. He also argued that the solar array would not be really visible. The PUC disagreed.

"The petitioner simply does not like what state law requires and therefore challenges its constitutionality." - Vermont Public Utility Commission

“These arguments by the petitioner [Melone] are simply counterfactual,” it said. “… While the petitioner's amendment to the facility would reduce its visibility, particularly from neighboring viewpoints, it would nonetheless remain a large black rectangle in the center of what was once a forested hillside at the southeastern corner of the Rural Conservation District. The facility would be prominently visible on a hillside location.”

The strongly worded decision went on to reject Melone's multiple arguments which included a challenge to the constitutionality of the hearing officer's proposed decision in the case. "The petitioner simply does not like what state law requires and therefore challenges its constitutionality," the PUC wrote.

Attorney Brooke Dingledine, who represents a local homeowners association that challenged the project, said her clients are pleased that the protections in the town plan were upheld. “I think this decision is significant because it recognizes that the voice of the individual Vermonter matters,” she said. “And it also puts the renewable industry on notice that the law in Vermont applies equally to them.”

The project has a seven-year history, including an appeal to the state Supreme Court. Melone has also appealed a decision of a companion project to the high court. That appeal is pending.

Dingledine said her clients expect this latest PUC ruling to be appealed as well. She said they have fought the project for five years, despite being sued by Melone for their opposition.  

“If anything there are inspired by the tactics here, and they will not be silenced,” she said.

Melone did not respond to requests for comment. Melone, an attorney, recently sued the utility commission in federal court over an earlier denial of his Bennington project.

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