MONMOUTH — A proposed 55-acre solar array could be on its way to Ridge Road, but a moratorium on the March 9 ballot could stop it in its tracks.
The solar array project is being planned out by Longroad Development Co., a Boston-based renewable energy development company that is also working on a 42-acre solar installation in Augusta.
Longroad is contracting the project with Bath Iron Works, which will be the sole recipient of the power. The website touts the benefit of the project to Monmouth is “an additional source of tax revenue with no additional burden to town services.” The project would bring in $5 million in new taxable property.
The project’s website states that the array at 483 Ridge Road will produce 4.95 megawatts of power with approximately 36 acres of solar equipment on an estimated 55-acre leased area. Construction is scheduled for summer 2021.
Despite the project already being in motion, a retroactive moratorium being voted on March 9 could stop it — and all construction and operation of solar arrays.
The decision to put the moratorium to a vote came in December, with a 3-2 vote from the Monmouth Select Board. Selectmen Mike Minkowsky, Harold Jones and Kristin Sanborn voted in favor of making it a ballot item; selectmen Douglas Ludewig and Timothy McDonald were opposed.
Minkowsky said the moratorium would give the town more time to “manage” the project and study its effects. He said many town officials only recently became aware of the project and that Longroad had been communicating their plans with former Code Enforcement Officer Dave Shaw.
“They claimed that they have been working with the town for over a year,” he said. “I don’t think that there was any ill intent.”
As part of the planning, Longroad’s Development Director David Kane said the company solicited feedback from Ridge Road residents about the location of the panels and a vegetation barrier meant to obscure the 8-foot-high panels.
He said the tone of the public changed after the feedback was received, and no members of the public commented during a Jan. 14 public hearing for the project during a meeting of the town’s Planning Board. Planning Board Chairperson Steve O’Donnell confirmed Kane’s assessment about the public hearing.
Ludewig said he voted against a moratorium on the ballot because he believed the town’s existing ordinance sufficiently address the town’s needs.
“They have to jump through a lot of hoops and meet a lot of standard beyond what we have in Monmouth to do this,” Ludewig said. “I don’t know how we’re going to benefit … during a moratorium.”
In July 2020, town voters approved amendments to Monmouth’s site development ordinance, which added a specific section for commercial solar projects.
Sanborn said a lot of town residents had questions about the project.
“I felt it that it was time to let the people do some due diligence and figure out what they wanted and didn’t want,” she said.
Sanborn said the ordinance changes in July flew under the radar, as the town voted by secret ballot and the question was “very ambiguous.” She said she wants townspeople to be able to read and understand the ordinance before a commercial array is built.
“It probably won’t be the last we see of these commercial solar farms,” Sanborn said.
Kane said that his company became aware of the upcoming ordinance changes in March or April 2020, and were advised by a town officials to wait for the ordinance to pass before advancing with their project. Their site plan was submitted to the Planning Board on Dec. 2, 2020.
The draft moratorium — which is retroactive to Nov. 18, 2020, when the ordinance changes went into effect — states that the town is “under threat of Commercial Solar Energy Facility Development pressure” and “needs time to study its ordinances to determine the implications of development proposals.” Under the moratorium, no party can construct or operate a commercial solar energy facility, and no town official can act upon applications for licenses related to such a facility.
That moratorium, which does not apply to arrays at residences or businesses that are generating power for their own use, would be in effect for 180 days from Nov. 18, 2020, but can be extended by the Select Board.
Kane said the passing of the ordinance in July and the 3-2 vote to put the moratorium on the March ballot conflict.
“Why are you trying to shoot this down when you just passed this ordinance, and you’re circumventing the will of the people,” he said.
Since it is not in effect yet, Town Manager Linda Cohen said the Longroad application is working its way through the Planning Board for site plan approval.
O’Donnell said no commercial projects have come before the planning board other than Longroad’s.
Even if there is a March vote in favor of the moratorium, Cohen said the town must allow Longroad to proceed through the Planning Board process. The company has been given notice of the potential moratorium, she said, and “is proceeding at the risk that the voters may pass it.”
Asked if Longroad would pursue legal action in the event of a delay due to the moratorium, Kane said the company’s focus “is on providing information about the project and the ways it benefits the people of Monmouth.”
“We’re confident that the voters will support solar power and the ordinance they passed last year by rejecting the moratorium on March 9,” he said.
Eric Conrad, spokesperson for the Maine Municipal Association, said retroactive moratoria are common for municipalities.
“The devil can be in the details,” he said, adding it is not a simple process to enact a retroactive moratorium. “(We advise municipalities to) work closely with your local counsel on this.”
Minkowsky said the goal of the moratorium is not to stop the project, but to study its impacts of the project and measure the ordinance based on those impacts. He said the moratorium was “borne from the concerns of citizens.”
“We don’t want to end up being locked into something that we’re stuck with for 20 years and say … we should have done this,” Minkowsky said. “It’s a misnomer to say we’re trying to stop it.”
Large scale solar farms are relatively new to the state, he said, and questions about its assessed value and the environmental impact of its construction were raised.
Sanborn said that there were concerns about lowering property values and the assessment of the farm’s value for tax purposes. Further, she said that some solar projects under five megawatts may be tax exempt, under rules made by the Gov. Janet Mills administration.
“I think we need to understand and also know what the state is going to pass back to municipalities that have these solar farms,” Sanborn said. “If you’re going to bring a business to town, what tangible things does it give back to the community?”
Tony Ronzio, deputy director of the Governor’s Office on Policy Innovation and the Future, said the proposed solar array would qualify for a state “Renewable Energy Equipment Exemption” that would allow the owner to not pay property taxes. However, he said, the state would reimburse the town half of the property taxes that would have been paid.
Kane said the $5 million figure is the total cost of the taxable equipment on the property, half of which the state is required to reimburse to the town. He said Longroad and other energy companies are working on the excise tax bill that would tax solar energy systems and reimburse the state for the monies paid to the towns.
“Even though it will increase the taxes paid by the project,” Kane said, “Longroad supports this change, because we believe it will create fair and appropriate tax policy for net energy billing projects.”
McDonald said he believed a citizen’s petition would have been a better course of action to place the moratorium on the ballot. But that process never materialized, because the Select Board decided to take up the issue.
“I thought the town ordinance addressed the placement of solar arrays adequately and (Longroad) was responsive to moving it back out of site,” he said. “I’m not in favor of telling people what they can and can’t do on their property.”
McDonald also said that the moratorium wouldn’t be the end of the saga for commercial developments, and changes to the ordinance would need to be proposed. He said the Planning Board had already undertaken reviews while they crafted the ordinance language approved in July.
“Someone would have to propose real changes to the ordinance,” McDonald said. “Failing that being done, the moratorium would expire and it really shouldn’t be renewed.”
Bonnie Green, who lives at 542 Ridge Road, is firmly against the project. She said it would “completely obliterate” panoramic views that people travel to Monmouth to see and harm wildlife in the area.
Green, a former State Representative, said she was in favor of solar power, but she opposed the location of the proposed array and would prefer to see that land preserved for agricultural uses. The land at 483 Ridge Road is owned by RD Orchards LLC, which is based out of Westwood, Massachusetts.
“It would be taking land that has been traditionally in agriculture for a good hundred years and take it out of agriculture,” she said. “There are other places in Monmouth that are open and would be just as good for solar development.”
Green also said the array would also have an adverse effect on wildlife in the area.
“I have been lucky enough to see, twice, a movement of a herd of deer. If you’ve ever seen it, it’s majestic. Thirty deer. A buck that was huge. And they’re going between Monmouth and Wales. If there were an installation, they would not have the access to go down as they do,” she said.
Green said that families have moved to Ridge Road recently because they appreciated the rural landscape, and this project would reduce the attractiveness of the area.
Kane pointed to simulated pictures that show the views of the panels from Ridge Road, saying that the panels “don’t come close to blocking the view from the east and the north.”
He also said the project comes with a “community benefits package.” He said $5,000 a year in grants finance college scholarships and $2,500 to child nutrition programs.
Kane described the project as “no strings attached” revenue, which he said is because these projects do not burden town resources like education, police or fire departments.
“If the town were to generate an equivalent amount of tax revenue through construction of new housing, there would be many kids to educate, fire and police services,” Kane said.
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