Regulators Halt Work On Bennington Solar Project Started Without Approval
State utility regulators took the unusual step last week of ordering a solar developer to stop work on a large project that doesn't have a permit.
In May, the Public Utility Commission denied developer Thomas Melone's request to build a 2-megawatt large solar array in a wooded area in Bennington. The commission ruled the project did not comply with the town plan.
But in mid-June, neighbors saw that trees were being clearcut at the site. The PUC held a hearing Friday, and a state botanist testified that rare plants were destroyed in the operation. Late Friday night, the PUC ordered Melone and his contractors to halt.
The stop-order references work on two 2-megawatt solar arrays, both of which have been denied permits by the PUC. Developer Melone has appealed one denial to the state Supreme Court, and has asked the PUC to reconsider its more recent decision for the Apple Hill project. State officials are seeking clarification about the stop-order applying to both sites.
"If we have applicants come in and ask for permission to construct, and don't wait for permission to construct and do it anyway, that's a problem." — Brooke Dingledine, attorney
Brooke Dingledine, who represents a local homeowners association challenging the project, said the integrity of the state environmental review is at stake when developers proceed without the required permits.
“If we have applicants come in and ask for permission to construct, and don’t wait for permission to construct and do it anyway, that's a problem,” she said. “The permitting process is designed to ensure that there is a balance struck between the desire to for economic development and the protection of the Vermont environment and the Vermont way of life.”
Dingledine said the commission should sanction Melone for violating state law.
“For a large developer to make a proposal, and to start construction on it anyway, cutting down forests, and in fact destroying rare, threatened and endangered species while they’re at it, is very troubling and ought to be addressed in the most serious way by the Public Utility Commission,” she said.
"[Melone's] claim in his affidavit that his activities are solely for farming purposes is not credible." — Vermont Public Utility Commission
Melone did not respond to a request for comment. He told the PUC he's clearing the land for a sheep and hemp farm, but the commission in its order rejected that argument:
“The petitioner’s [Melone’s] claim in his affidavit that his activities are solely for farming purposes is not credible. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets defines a farm as land that is ‘devoted primarily to farming.’ The petitioner testified in this proceeding that, although the sheep may end up being used for some farming purposes, he was putting the sheep in this location ‘primarily’ to serve the proposed solar projects. This does not qualify as farming. Further, the petitioner testified that the clearing activities are a prerequisite to building the solar projects that have not received” permits.
Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, alerted regulators that the land was being cleared. Smith said Melone has sidestepped a law requiring energy developers to get a permit called a certificate of public good, or CPG.
“This is in statute, that site preparation cannot begin until you have a CPG,” she said. “There is no CPG issued for either of these two sites… The developer does not seem to want to respect the state’s law.”
Both the Agency of Natural Resources and the Department of Public Service, which represents the public in utility cases, are involved in the case. The department asked the commission for more detail on whether its stop-work order applies to the entire 27-acre tract that Melone wants to use for both potential solar sites.
ANR’s lawyer said the agency wants to know in detail what happened at the site, what equipment was used and who used it. ANR also asked for a site plan that shows where the work occurred and where the rare and very rare plants were located.
Clarification July 1, 2020 12:45 pm. Story was clarified to note that the PUC has denied both of Melone's projects at this site in Bennington.