Some Simsbury residents say a 26-megawatt solar farm proposed for Simsbury farmland will create irreversible negative impacts to the town, including diminishing the town's character, a reduction in property values and adverse environmental impacts on animal migration patterns and water quality.
Others insist that it will improve property values, reduce the tax burden on residents and is the lowest impact use for the land, which is currently being farmed but is zoned for residential and light industrial use.
More than 50 people turned out for a public hearing at Eno Memorial Hall on Tuesday to learn more about the proposal put forth by Rhode Island-based company Deepwater Wind that is currently being evaluated by the Connecticut Siting Council – the state authority that regulates such projects.
Deepwater Wind wants to build the Tobacco Valley Solar Farm on 156 acres in north Simsbury, whose parcels total 289 acres. It is expected to produce enough energy to power 5,000 homes. Deepwater would be selling the energy to utility companies, not to residents.
If approved, Deepwater Wind would install 110,000, 10-foot solar panels on the property. Deepwater Wind officials on Tuesday estimated that about 30 acres of trees would be cleared for the project, while 133 acres would be preserved as open space or forested area.
Deepwater Wind officials noted Tuesday that two of the five historic tobacco barns located on the property — two structures along Hoskins Road — would remain. However, officials stated that the structures are in severe disrepair and that there are no current plans to use them as part of the project.
Deepwater Wind was selected from a pool of respondents to the state's Three-State Clean Energy Request for Proposals. The company is also working on solar projects in Foster and Glocester, R.I., and belongs to a group that has completed projects totaling 800 megawatts of solar energy. It recently completed an offshore wind farm for Block Island.
About 20 people addressed the siting council Tuesday. The 15 people who spoke in opposition to the plan said they were not opposed to the idea of green energy or solar farms, but called various aspects of the project into question.
"We all know, as much as we'd like to go to the light switch for power, we've also got to go to the refrigerator for food," said Joe Pozzato, who lives near the proposed site. "We've got to keep the farms going. They're disappearing."
Jason Polayes, who lives nearby, told council members he was concerned about the effect the project would have on water quality, particularly for those with wells in the area.
"I believe if this project is done, it should be done right and I believe as it stands now, the proposal is not to the benefit yet of the residents around it," Polayes said. "I don't understand the complexity of a wind farm off Block Island. This is a solar farm in a residential area and I imagine it poses other challenges and I don't know if I've seen those taken into consideration yet for the proposal."
Six people spoke in favor of the proposal, saying solar panels are a better option for the land than the prospective housing development or light industrial warehouses the current local zoning allows for.
Mark Scully said he was "willing to accept the sacrifice of putting a solar farm on this site."
"I think looking back, this will not materially influence the residential character of the town," Scully said.
"I think there are very serious, legitimate concerns that our citizens have raised and I would encourage you to make the modifications that will allow this solar farm to be built that is in keeping with the character of this community," Scully said. "My reasoning is simple: We all need to do our part to address climate change. ... Future generations will thank us for this project."
In addition to the public hearing, Tuesday's events included a site review and an evidentiary hearing, in which the council further questioned Deepwater Wind.
Because the project site was too expansive to walk and still privately used as farmland, council members and others in attendance, including town leaders, viewed the land via public vantage points during a driving tour. The tour route extended primarily through the residential areas that abut the property.
In several areas, but most notably in the neighborhoods along Munnisunk Drive, Gordon Street and Knollwood Circle, the proposed solar site was visible through the treeline of many backyards.
In August, First Selectwoman Lisa Heavner formally announced the town's opposition to the project, saying the application to the siting council lacked sufficient information for the council to render a decision.
Heavner said town leaders called upon the siting council to reduce the project's scope "to lessen the impact on abutters and the public including the removal of the parcel located on the southern side of Hoskins [Road]."
She added that the project should be amended to include visual buffers and landscaping "based on visual elements characteristic of and already existing in Simsbury," and that historical landmarks should be preserved.
Heavner said Tuesday that town leaders would remain willing to work with Deepwater Wind to ensure the proposal considers the concerns of town officials and residents.
The evidentiary hearing was continued until Oct. 10 at 11 a.m. at the siting council headquarters in New Britain. The deadline for a decision on the matter is Dec. 26, according to a tentative schedule released by the siting council.