Concerns About Local Solar Project Have Statewide Implications

Last week, about 40 Taftsville residents held a meeting with state representative Alison Clarkson and all three Windsor County state senators, Alice Nitka, Dick McCormack, and John Campbell, to express their concerns about the commercial scale solar farm proposed for an undeveloped field in their village.

The group carefully explained the various reasons why they believe this is not an appropriate site for such a project—excessive water runoff, the site’s proximity to a national historic district including a 200-year-old cemetery still in use, its role as a wildlife corridor, and the status of Rt. 4 as a National Scenic Byway.

They also argued that the developer, whose financial incentives will benefit his out-of-state investors and conventional power companies, offers relatively few benefits to the community and no guarantee that the infrastructure will be removed when it outlives its usefulness.

But they know that these concerns do not need to be taken seriously by the Public Service Board when it reviews this project. The state of Vermont, in its haste to facilitate rapid development of renewable energy, established an approval process that shuts local communities out of important planning decisions. So much for our state’s cherished tradition of local democracy; zoning regulations, town plans and homeowners’ concerns are subordinated to the interests of developers.

The legislators heard these concerns and promised to address them. It may turn out that the Taftsville uprising leads to a significant revision of the site approval process.

Some worry that this will hinder the state’s alternative energy goals. Since I began writing in April about the “environmentalist’s dilemma” of supporting renewable energy development while also showing respect for the natural landscape, I’ve had conversations with colleagues in environmental groups (such as VPIRG and Energy Action Network) who promote those ambitious goals.

They acknowledge my dilemma but insist that the need to address climate change is too urgent to be hampered by local opposition to renewables. We’ll just have to get used to a changed landscape, they suggest.

I’m not ready to go there. To me, the Taftsville opposition represents values that are as important to consider as addressing climate change. Maybe these aren’t as tangible or measurable as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but if we are willing to sacrifice our relationship to the land, our sense of place, to the modern era’s insatiable need for energy, then our culture will be unsustainable even if our energy is from cleaner sources.

In an email conversation, Elizabeth Ferry of the Barnard Energy Committee made a statement that goes to the heart of the matter. She observed that “natural beauty is my main consolation. We are headed for hard times. We owe it to future generations to include beauty in the resources available to them as they cope, too.”

Although beauty cannot be quantified, and is considered to be entirely subjective (some environmentalists claim to find solar and wind projects beautiful), we cannot afford to lose a sense of reverence for nature. If it comes down to a choice, I would rather live in a world with less abundant electricity than one in which little or no natural beauty remains.

At Sustainable Woodstock’s latest board meeting, we tried to reach consensus about a position statement on the Taftsville project, but we were bedeviled by the environmentalist’s dilemma.

Some argued forcefully for the imperative to replace fossil fuels, while others, just as passionately, asserted that energy projects don’t belong everywhere, and unless residents’ concerns can be addressed, this solar farm, as proposed, does not belong in Taftsville. One of our Energy Action Group members suggested that we could work with the regional planning commission to identify better sites.

We will keep wrestling with this dilemma, and I encourage all readers to wrestle with these questions also. What do you, and what should we as a society, ultimately value most?

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