Windsor Homeowners Concerned With Loomis Chaffee Plan For Solar Panel Farm

Marci Martin said she loves to look out of her second floor bedroom window to the east. Every day, she is greeted by a view that looks down on a beautiful forest and the wildlife that lives there.

But that could change if her neighbor, the Loomis Chaffee School, moves forward with plans to construct a large solar array on land at the edge of the forest and abutting her back yard.

And there may not be anything she or the town can do about it.

Martin, a rosarian whose Windsor Avenue garden has more than 300 roses, first heard about plans to clear the forest for the solar project in June and it left her unsettled.

“Every time I heard a chain saw or loud motor I was like, ‘what’s going on’?” she said.

So Martin went to town officials to see what could be done and was surprised to learn that there are only a few regulations regarding rooftop solar installations, and none for large ground arrays. The school would only need a building permit and wouldn’t even be required to go before the town planning and zoning commission.

“I said, isn’t there a law? Shouldn’t there be?” Martin recalled.

Martin also invited Loomis Chaffee Head of School Sheila Culbert, to visit her home, see her garden and view from her back porch, and discuss the issue.

She spoke about a young northern harrier learning to fly in the forest, owls and howling coyotes that would be losing their home.

“What about them?” she asked

Martin said the response was that the school would do what the town required, and that construction would begin in the spring.

Culbert did not respond to a request for comment.

Lynn Petrillo, director of strategic communications and marketing for the school, said the move to renewable energy has been part of an ongoing conversation at Loomis for several years and that it is driven by the school’s “deep commitment to both environmental education and our concern for our own carbon footprint and overall environmental impact.”

Petrillo said the approximately 3-acre array would produce about 25 to 30 percent of the school’s electrical demand and that it would reduce costs by about 25 percent.

She also said that the school only planned to clear a two-acre portion of the forest in question.

After meeting with school officials, Martin and her husband Robert then decided to engage the services of an attorney to see if they could get language in planning and zoning regulations that gave the commission more oversight.

The attorney Tim Fitzgerald, a former member of the planning and zoning commission, drafted language for large ground-mounted solar installation with a foot-print of more than 2.500 square-feet.

The new language, known as a text amendment, calls for requiring building permits and site plans and special use approval by the commission and screening or fencing to block the installation from the view of neighbors.

It also requires the applicant to satisfy the commission that a large solar facility would not result in a “significant negative impact” and that the commission should consider “when evaluating such negative impacts, the proposed extent of tree and other vegetation clearing and the impact on habitat and wildlife corridors.”

“We want the commission to have some power to review and make changes,” Fitzgerald said. “We think there’s a glaring omission in regulations.”

The text amendments were introduced to the commission at its December meeting and may be voted on at the January meeting.

A lawyer representing the school voiced opposition to the new language.

Petrillo said the school has very little space located above the 100-year flood plain and that it looked carefully at adding rooftop solar or carports, but added that the chosen location is the only acreage above the floodplain and in proximity to the power plant. The town’s plan of development and zoning regulations also promote the expansion of solar energy, she said.

“The amendments proposed by the neighbors would significantly limit the growth of solar initiatives in Windsor,” she said. For both environmental and educational reasons, we oppose the amendments,” Petrillo said.

Fitzgerald said that if the commission accepts the text amendments they would not take effect until they are published and a 15 day appeal period passes.

However, according to town planner Eric Barz, if Loomis makes its application to the inland and wetlands commission and applies for its building permit before any new regulations take affect, they would not apply to this project.

The issue of balancing the trend toward solar energy with protecting abutting property owners or preserving forest land is not a new one.

In 2013 the Capitol Region Council of Governments produced a guide of sustainable land use regulations related to renewable energy for its member towns.

The guide addressed sites bordering residential neighborhoods.

Barz acknowledged Thursday that he wrote the current regulations related to solar installations, but in hindsight, didn’t contemplate that Loomis would have sufficient property outside the floodplain to accommodate such a large ground-mounted array.

“Given that the campus buildings and several athletic fields occupy most of the high grounds on campus, and that the solar arrays can only be used to offseton-site electrical needs, I expected that large arrays would be limited to our industrial areas, which tend to be on flat ground,” he said.

The Council on Environmental Quality also issued a report on solar power initiatives using up key farm and forest lands and warned against energy sprawl.

We’ve been fighting this battle for a long time,” said Karl Wagener, the agency’s executive director. “We view [the replacement of farm or forest land] as a negative.”

Wagener said his organization recommends a much higher level of scrutiny on solar projects that result in the loss of farm or forest land.

As for Martin’s concerns, Petrillo said the school has always sought to be a good neighbor and a responsible resident in the stewardhship of its campus, including meeting with town officials and affected residents.

“We understand the concerns of the neighbors and have sought to address them,” she said. “We have promised to plant trees and do other landscape work to mitigate the aesthetic impact of the array.’

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