SOUTHINGTON — A decision on whether a 37-acre solar panel array can be installed on farmland along East Street may be delayed for a third time after the state Department of Agriculture ruled that the project wouldn’t eliminate the benefits the farmland provides.
Verogy, a solar panel installation company based in Hartford, is seeking to install the array at 1012 East St., across the street from the YMCA’s Camp Sloper. The 103-acre parcel is owned by the Catholic Cemeteries Association, which has leased the land to Karabin Farms for growing hay and other crops.
Karabin Farms has objected to the project, arguing to the state Siting Council that the loss of farmland outweighs the value of the renewable energy the project would generate.
The Siting Council oversees the placement of major electricity infrastructure, balancing the state’s energy needs with environmental considerations, according to the council’s website. It has already received two 90-day extensions on its deadline to make a decision, pushing it to April 25. An executive order by Gov. Ned Lamont allowed state agencies to delay regulatory time requirements and hearings to accommodate disruptions caused by the pandemic.DOA ruling
Siting Council Executive Director Melanie Bachman wrote on Feb. 22 that the council requires additional time to evaluate a letter from the Department of Agriculture stating that the project “will not have a material impact on prime farmland if certain conditions are met.”
The extension would push the deadline from April 25 to Oct. 22, 2021 and requires the agreement of the parties involved.
In the DOA letter, Commissioner Bryan Hurlburt stated that the developers and landowner, the Catholic Cemeteries Association, had incorporated four new measures to preserve the value of the farmland being impacted by the project, including allowing sheep to graze throughout the site and adding beehives.
Verogy would work with the town or other organizations to create a community garden on site and the Catholic Cemeteries Association also “agreed to negotiate in good faith to sell the development rights to preserve approximately 60 acres (20 of which are actively farmed at this time) of the Project site.”
The association also agreed to grant the DOA right of first offer on any land outside the scope of the 60 acres should it be put up for sale at any time.
“It is the opinion of the department that the measures outlined in this letter (i.e., co-use activities ensuring agriculture remains present on the land, and the permanent protection of approximately 60 acres of farmland and woodland) provide ongoing and permanent benefits to Connecticut prime farmland,” Hurlburt wrote. “Therefore, provided the conditions herein are met, it is our opinion that there will not be a material impact on prime farmland.”
In September 2020, Hurlburt had written to the Siting Council with the opinion that it could not be determined if the project would have a “material effect on the status of prime farmland” without further efforts to address the department’s concerns.
At that time, he stated that disrupting 30 acres of prime farmland would have a “significant impact” on both Karabin Farms and the surrounding community. He recognized that the proposal at that time included sheep grazing and pollinator seed mixes, however he wrote that “we believe the mitigation measures proposed for this particular project are insufficient to address the removal of an established tenant farmer growing on prime farmland soils.”
Verogy Chief Executive Officer William Herchel said the company welcomes the ruling from the DOA and that they will continue to work with the Siting Council and the town.
“It is not uncommon for the Connecticut Siting Council (CSC) to extend their timeframe for issuing a decision, and when they do so, they tend to use the longest duration possible to avoid further extension requests,” he said. “We will continue to work with the CSC, the Southington community, and any interested stakeholders to make sure this project complies with all state requirements and best serves the public need. We are encouraged by the recent approval of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, and believe that our project can serve as one of the best examples of agricultural and renewable energy co-use in the state."
The flat land, lack of tree coverage and nearby electrical infrastructure make the site ideal for solar panels, according to Herchel. The 4.7-megawatt project could generate enough electricity "to power 1,126 average homes for one year,” Verogy said in its petition to the Siting Council, filed in July 2020.
In addition to approval from the Siting Council, the project also requires a storm water permit from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and permits from the municipal building department.
Paul Zagorski, an attorney for Karabin Farms, disputed Verogy’s filings before the council detailing the amount of work that would be required to restore the property to farmland after the 25 year lifespan of the solar panels. He said the company’s filings with the Siting Council say that restoration work would be needed on 3.7 acres of the project, however he believes the impact would be wider.
“They’re saying the remainder … is not being disturbed even though they’re putting this massive solar panel complex,” he said in December.