Lack of Zoning Rules Spurs Solar Plan’s Move to Canaan

Published: 8/5/2016 9:15:54 AM
Modified: 6/23/2015 12:00:00 AM
Enfield — A solar advocate is bringing his plans for a roughly 11/2-acre array to downtown Canaan after neighbors and officials in Enfield raised concerns about a residential Main Street parcel he was eyeing for the project.

The developer, Enfield resident Philip Vermeer, said he hopes that the 372 panels on leased land behind Canaan Hardware will be up and running by August.

“They’re pleased to have something coming into town,” Vermeer said, noting that the project was able to move forward in Canaan because the town has fewer zoning ordinances than Enfield.

Canaan Town Administrator Mike Samson concurred with Vermeer’s assessment of the level of enthusiasm for the project in Canaan. Vermeer will need to get a building permit, Samson said, but that the process is “nothing exciting” and Vermeer’s ability to move forward “won’t be in any way impacted by it.”

Meanwhile, Enfield officials and Vermeer say the review process in Enfield — where Vermeer unsuccessfully applied for a variance to build a commercial project in a residentially zoned neighborhood — highlighted a need to update the town’s zoning regulations in order to address renewable energy projects more directly, especially solar.

Currently, Vermeer said, “there’s really nothing in the zoning regulations that allow for renewable energy.” As chairman of the town’s Energy Committee, he said, he’d like to help draft a zoning bylaw that townspeople could vote on by Town Meeting 2016.

Phil Neily, the town zoning administrator, said the “best thing that came out of this” application process was that people started talking about the need to regulate renewables on the local level — whether or not they supported Vermeer’s proposal.

Vermeer, of Vermeer Group LLC, had proposed the array be built on a former horse pasture on land he owns at 130 Main St. Vermeer, who lives on the other side of Route 4, owns rental properties at the Main Street address and has already installed a few ground-mounted solar arrays to power those homes and a 
barn.

The Zoning Board of Adjustment this month unanimously denied Vermeer’s request for a variance to build the larger array, which would operate on a group “net metered” setup to benefit houses who signed onto the project, finding that his application did not meet several standards for granting a variance for a commercial project in a residentially zoned 
area.

According to the minutes, several in attendance at the June 9 meeting called for the town to collectively designate the appropriate areas for solar arrays through new zoning bylaws, which would require a Town Meeting vote.

Among them were John Kluge, of the Selectboard and Planning Board, who said he worried that granting a variance for the Vermeer proposal could set a precedent to allow other projects without a regulatory structure, according to the minutes.

Neighbors also raised questions about the appropriateness of the Main Street location. Although Vermeer said that the array would be visible only in a “glimpse” from most public locations, neighbors said they were concerned about the array’s impact on their property 
values.

Ruth R. Lovejoy, whose family has lived in the area for generations, said the array would be a blight on the neighborhood.

“Inasmuch as Mr. Vermeer does not actually live in the vicinity of his proposed solar farm, it is understandable that he would ignore that aesthetic injury his enterprise will cause,” she wrote in a letter that was read during the meeting.

In the group net metering setup, the energy created by the solar array is put onto the grid and sold to power companies — in this case, Liberty Utilities — and electricity consumers sign up with the developer to use up the amount of energy created, which allows the utility to accurately plan ahead. If that group of houses uses less energy over the course of the year than what was created by the array, they have to pay Liberty Utilities, Vermeer said, so it’s beneficial to get as many properties signed up as possible.

Vermeer, who is also president of the nearby Community Lutheran Church, had said that he would be taking a 5 percent return on investment, with the rest of the profits — estimating them to be in the ballpark of $6,000 annually — going to the church.

He said the younger spectrum of the crowd was on board with the project, finding value in living near solar arrays, and he wants to build on their interest.

“We’ve got some educating to do and we’ve got to get some new generation folks interested in the local politics to get some of those regulations more contemporary, more beneficial for renewable energy,” Vermeer said. “We’re very vulnerable, the Northeast right now. Everybody knows it with the (power) bills right now.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.




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