A developer tried to convince city officials that saying a proposed solar project was on a “preferred site” was not “endorsing” it.

The Community and Economic Development Committee wasn’t quite swayed Wednesday, voting to table the issue for further proceedings prior to the April 15 Board of Aldermen meeting.

Charles Coughlin was in front of the committee, along with Phil and Marlene Allen of Same Sun of Vermont, seeking a letter of support for his plan to build a solar array on his West Street property. Coughlin owns Central Vermont Motorcycles — behind which he plans to put the solar array — as well as the local McDonalds franchise. He said he owns a total of eight restaurants in Vermont.

“Drive down the road and you see solar panels everywhere, and I go ‘Why aren’t I doing that?’” he said.

So, Coughlin said, he chose one of his properties that he felt was best suited to a solar array and worked with Same Sun on an arrangement that would spread the power across his properties. Marlene Allen said the project would make use of group net metering, in which the power enters the grid from the array and the utility would then credit power bills for customers in the designated group — in this case, Coughlin’s businesses. Phil Allen said Vermont would receive the resulting renewable energy certificates, keeping all the various benefits of the project in-state.

Phil Allen said if Coughlin gets a letter from the city and the Rutland Regional Planning Commission agreeing that the location is a preferred site, he gets a penny more per kilowatt hour.

“A penny doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is,” Phil Allen said. “It’s about half a million pennies a year times 10 years. I think that’s $50,000.”

Marlene Allen said a preferred site designation is part of the certificate of public good process but has no bearing on the outcome other than the rate adjustment.

“The state wants to incentivize good siting of solar projects,” she said. “There’s been some backlash. There’s been prime agricultural lands used.”

Phil Allen pointed out that the West Street location was an industrial property bordered by other industrial properties, including the city’s sewer plant and the railroad.

“It fits the aesthetic criteria quite beautifully,” he said.

Nobody at the meeting argued that point, but several city officials were concerned about the message they would send by declaring the site “preferred.” Public Works Commissioner Jeffrey Wennberg said that if the city finds something objectionable when Coughlin and Same Sun submit their full application, having previously endorsed the project would make opposing it difficult.

That position was echoed by several aldermen present. Alderman Paul Clifford said he would want to hear from abutting landlords before signing the letter. Board President Sharon Davis said taking such a position on a private development was outside the board’s role and that she would vote against it if called on to break a tie at the full board.

The Allens stressed that signing the letter was not endorsing the project as a whole, just saying that it met specific criteria set out by the Public Utility Commission for the purposes of determining rates. He said the fact that whoever wrote the regulation used the word “preferred” was probably creating the problem.

“It’s unfortunate language, but it’s all the language we have,” Phil Allen said. “It’s not an endorsement. It’s just stating it’s a preferred site under (the PUC’s) definition.”

The three present members of the committee — Aldermen William Gillam, Matthew Whitcomb and Matthew Reveal — all agreed they were open to the letter but wanted to at least give abutting landowners a chance to contact them. The Allens and Coughlin said they would get their notices out to the abuttors as soon as possible.


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