Augusta bans the development of large solar projects for 180 days

A solar panel seen on November 26, 2019 on the grounds of Blaine House in Augusta. Photo from Journal Kennebec by Joe Ph

AUGUSTA – City councilors have voted to ban the development of any major solar power project anywhere in the city for the next 180 days.

Councilors said voters reached out to them, concerned about both the aesthetics of some recently developed solar projects and their proliferation, which has increased statewide after changes in state law were brought to light. encouraged their development.

The ordinance would ban – for the next 180 days – any construction, development or review by municipal authorities of solar power systems of 15,000 square feet or larger. The ordinance went into effect Thursday, when city councilors voted unanimously at their meeting in favor of the mortarium.

“Absolutely no one I have spoken to is against renewable energy, because it is obviously the future of our existence,” said Ward 3 Councilor Mike Michaud.

Michaud said he had heard more voters in the past two weeks on solar panels than he had heard from voters on all other issues during his one-and-a-half years on the board.

“But it’s the aesthetics, coming into town from different exits, the first thing people see are the solar panels,” he said. “Personally, and other people have said it too, I don’t want Augusta to be the solar capital of Maine.

“There has to be an amicable way to work with these companies so that there is as much cover-up as possible,” Michaud added. “We want to have the best possible aesthetics. “

Several city councilors said they heard from residents unhappy about the appearance of a large solar project off Highway 3, which councilors called the Board of Trade project, although with this project already licensed and built, it would not be subject to the moratorium.

Robert Cleaves, co-founder and principal investor of Portland-based Dirigo Solar, which developed the Board of Trade’s solar farm and also has a solar project on Church Hill Road currently before the Planning Board for consideration, said the company is willing to work with the city to take any additional steps it may take at its sites to address Augusta’s concerns.

Cleaves said those concerns could be resolved without a moratorium and called for the temporary ban to be put in place for just 90 days. He also asked councilors to consider his business, which he says is the largest large-scale solar energy developer in Maine, a resource for the city as authorities seek to change rules to require improved aesthetics of solar sites.

Cleaves noted that Dirigo Solar’s two projects in Augusta, the one built on Route 3 and the one proposed on Church Hill Road, were the result of awards given to the company by the State Utilities Board, for providing up to ‘to 75 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 10,000 homes. And that the company followed state and city rules in developing both. He hopes the city’s rules won’t change just before their Church Hill Road project is ready for approval.

“The Church Hill project, which we started in 2018, and in which we invested almost half a million dollars, we went into the project knowing that solar energy was a permitted use,” said Cleaves told city councilors Thursday. “We hope, in this solar moratorium process, if council chooses to adopt it, that the discussion would focus on performance standards and best management processes and ensuring that the city has standards in place. which protect the city and competing uses. As opposed to an outright ban on solar.

He said the company’s agreement to develop a solar power system with the owner of Church Hill expires at the end of the year, which he said would not give the company enough time. to complete the project on time, if there is nothing they can do. for 180 days due to the moratorium.

City councilors sought to assure Cleaves that the city’s goal was not to ban solar projects, but to more strictly regulate their appearance. They agreed that the city should act as quickly as possible to review the city’s current solar development rules and make changes to them. But refused to reduce the length of the moratorium to less than the proposed 180 days.

“We don’t want anyone who sees Augusta as hostile to business, and we heard you when you said you put time and money into this and that was not the landscape when you started.” , said General Counsel Raegan LaRochelle. “So I think we’re all on the same page and working for the same goal. We can work hard to try to make sure everyone can meet their deadlines. “

Councilors did not approve the moratorium on Thursday until first reading. Normally, two readings are required before councilors vote on such proposals, but councilors voted unanimously to forgo the second reading and adopt the moratorium as an emergency measure.

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