MONMOUTH – A planned 55-acre solar panel might be on its way to Ridge Road, but a moratorium on March 9 voting could hold it back.
The solar array project is being planned by Longroad Development Co., a Boston-based renewable energy development company that is also working on a 42-acre solar array in Augusta.
Longroad commissioned the project with Bath Iron Works, which will be the sole recipient of the energy. The website promotes the benefits of the Monmouth project and is “an additional source of tax revenue with no additional burden on city services”. The project would generate $ 5 million in new taxable real estate.
The project's website states that the array at 483 Ridge Road will produce 4.95 megawatts of electricity using approximately 36 acres of solar equipment on an estimated 55 acres of rental space. Construction is planned for summer 2021.
Although the project is already underway, a retrospective moratorium to be voted on on March 9th could stop it – and the entire construction and operation of solar systems.
The decision to put the moratorium to a vote came in December with a 3-2 vote by the Monmouth Select Board. The chosen ones Mike Minkowsky, Harold Jones and Kristin Sanborn voted for it to be a ballot. Selects Douglas Ludewig and Timothy McDonald opposed it.
Minkowsky said the moratorium would give the city more time to “manage” the project and study its impact. He said many city officials had only recently become aware of the project and that Longroad had communicated their plans to former Code Enforcement Officer Dave Shaw.
“They claimed they had been working with the city for over a year,” he said. “I don't think there was any bad intentions.”
As part of the planning, David Kane, Longroad's Director of Development, asked residents of Ridge Road for feedback on the location of the panels and a vegetation barrier that will cover the 8-foot-tall panels.
He said the tone of the public changed after receiving the feedback and no member of the public commented on it during a public hearing of the project on Jan. 14 during a meeting of the city's planning authority. Steve O'Donnell, chairman of the planning committee, confirmed Kane's assessment of the public hearing.
Ludewig said he voted against a moratorium on the vote because he felt the city's existing ordinance adequately addressed the city's needs.
“You have to jump through many hoops and meet many standards beyond what we have at Monmouth to do,” said Ludewig. “I don't know how we'll benefit from this … during a moratorium.”
In July 2020, city voters approved changes to the Monmouth Site Development Ordinance that added a dedicated section for commercial solar projects.
Sanborn said many city dwellers had questions about the project.
“I felt it was time to let people do due diligence and figure out what they wanted and what they didn't,” she said.
Sanborn said July amendments to the ordinance went under the radar as the city voted on a secret ballot and the issue was “very ambiguous”. She said she would like city residents to read and understand the regulation before a commercial array is built.
“It probably won't be the last time we see these commercial solar parks,” said Sanborn.
Kane said his company became aware of the upcoming changes to the ordinance in March or April 2020 and was instructed by a city official to wait for the ordinance to be passed before proceeding with his project. Your site plan was submitted to the planning authority on December 2, 2020.
The draft moratorium, which was retroactive to November 18, 2020 when the amendments to the ordinance came into effect, states that the city “is under pressure from the development of commercial solar power plants” and “needs time to study its ordinances in order to determine the impact of development proposals. “Under the moratorium, neither party can build or operate a commercial solar power plant, and no city official can apply for licenses for such a plant.
This moratorium, which does not apply to arrays in residential buildings or companies that generate electricity for their own use, applies for 180 days from November 18, 2020, but can be extended by the Select Board.
Kane said the ordinance was passed in July and the 3-2 vote to impose the moratorium on the electoral conflict in March.
“Why are you trying to shoot this down when you were passing this regulation and you are circumventing the will of the people,” he said.
Since it is not yet in effect, city administrator Linda Cohen said the longroad application is working its way through the planning agency to get approval for the site map.
O'Donnell said no commercial projects other than Longroad's had made it to the planning board.
Even if the moratorium is voted in March, Cohen said the city must allow Longroad to go through the planning committee process. The company has been informed of the possible moratorium, she said, and “runs the risk of voters passing it”.
When asked if Longroad would take 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 how it will benefit the people of Monmouth.
“We are confident that voters will support solar energy and the regulation they passed last year by rejecting the moratorium on March 9,” he said.
Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, said retroactive moratoriums are common for local authorities.
“The devil can be in the details,” he said, adding that putting in place a retrospective moratorium is not an easy process. “(We advise municipalities to do this) work closely with their local lawyer.”
Minkowsky said the goal of the moratorium is not to stop the project, but rather to study its impact on the project and measure the regulation against that impact. He said the moratorium was “borne by the concerns of the citizens”.
“We don't want to be involved in something we've been holding onto for 20 years and say … we should have done that,” Minkowsky said. “It's a misnomer to say we're trying to stop it.”
Large solar parks are relatively new to the state and questions have been raised about their estimated value and the environmental impact of the construction.
Sanborn said there were concerns about the drop in property values and assessing the value of the farm for tax purposes. She also said that some solar projects under five megawatts could be tax-free under the rules of the Janet Mills government.
“I think we need to understand and also know what the state is going to give back to the communities that have these solar parks,” said Sanborn. “If you want to bring a business into town, what specific things do you get back to the community?”
Tony Ronzio, assistant director of the governors' office for policy innovation and the future, said the proposed solar panel would qualify for a state “renewable energy device exemption” that would allow owners to avoid paying property taxes. However, he said the state would reimburse the city for half of the property taxes paid.
Kane said the $ 5 million figure is the total cost of taxable equipment on the property, half of which will be claimed by the state for reimbursement to the city. He said Longroad and other energy companies are working on the excise duty, which would tax solar panels and reimburse the state for monies paid to cities.
“While it does increase the taxes paid by the project,” said Kane, “Longroad supports this change because we believe it will create fair and reasonable taxation policies for net energy billing projects.”
McDonald said he believed a citizens' petition would have been a better way of putting the moratorium on the ballot. However, this process never materialized as the Select Board decided to take up the issue.
“I thought the city ordinance adequately dealt with the placement of solar panels and (Longroad) responded to removing them from the site,” he said. “I'm not in favor of telling people what they can and can't do on their property.”
McDonald also said the moratorium would not be the end of the saga on commercial developments and amendments to the regulation needed to be proposed. He said the planning agency had already carried out reviews while it was drafting the regulatory language approved in July.
“Somebody would have to propose real changes to the regulation,” said McDonald. “Otherwise the moratorium would expire and it really shouldn't be renewed.”
Bonnie Green, who lives at 542 Ridge Road, is strongly against the project. She said it would “completely obliterate” the panoramic views people travel to Monmouth to see and harm the wildlife in the area.
Green, a former state official, said she was in favor of solar power but opposed the location of the proposed array and would prefer to keep the land for agricultural use. The property at 483 Ridge Road is owned by RD Orchards LLC, based in Westwood, Massachusetts.
“It would take land that has traditionally been farmed for well over a hundred years and take it out of agriculture,” she said. “There are other places in Monmouth that are open that are just as good for solar development.”
Green also said the array would also have a negative impact on wildlife in the area.
“I was lucky enough to see a herd of deer move twice. If you've ever seen it, it's majestic. Thirty deer. Money that was huge. And they run between Monmouth and Wales. If there was an installation they wouldn't have access to shut it down like that, ”she said.
Green said families recently moved to Ridge Road because of their appreciation of the rural landscape, and this project would make the area less attractive.
Pointing to simulated images showing the panels' views from Ridge Road, Kane said the panels “are nowhere near blocking the view from east and north.”
He also said that the project comes with a “Community Benefit Package”. He said that $ 5,000 per year in grants is available to fund college scholarships and $ 2,500 is available for child nutrition programs.
Kane described the project as “non-binding”, which is due to the fact that these projects do not burden city resources such as education, police or fire brigade.
“If the city were to generate an equivalent amount of tax revenue by building new homes, there would be many children who could be educated, fired and police service,” said Kane.
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