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Michael Baute, director of regenerative energy and land management for Silicon Ranch, provides details of his company's plans to build a solar array along Route 184 just west of Boombridge Road in North Stonington during a site walk in late March. A proposal to construct 28,890 solar panels on 47 acres of the 157-acre forestland was rejected last week by members of the Connecticut Siting Council following a 3-3 vote. Jason Vallee, The Westerly Sun 

NORTH STONINGTON — A proposed 9.9- megawatt solar field along Route 184 has been rejected after the resignation of a member of the Connecticut Siting Council on Sept. 1 led to a surprise split vote last week that scuttled the project’s approval.

Now town officials are hopeful that the developer, Silicon Ranch Corp., will use this as an opportunity to relocate the project to a different part of town to eliminate the need to clear-cut 44 acres of forest and avoid potential negative impacts to both wetlands and neighboring properties.

First Selectman Michael Urgo praised the council’s decision, saying that while he is a big proponent of both solar and renewable energy, local residents have been vocal that they do not want to see the project move forward where it is currently proposed. He said the town would continue to seek to have the project relocated if the company should pursue moving forward at the currently proposed site.

“They are large landholders in town and have certain rights, but we don’t want to see a project like this cut into a core forest,” Urgo said. “From a town perspective, we are trying to find a balance that will address the concerns of neighbors while still being good partners with the company.”

The split decision came last week as a vote by members of the Connecticut Siting Council resulted in a 3-3 tie, leading the project to be rejected because of the lack of a majority. The council had previously indicated during a straw poll in late August that it would pass the project by a 4-3 vote, but the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s designated representative on the council, Robert Hannon, who indicated he would have voted in favor of the project, retired on Sept. 1 and his seat has not yet been filled.

Representatives of Silicon Ranch said Tuesday that the company has been committed to a project that would remain environmentally friendly with as minimal of an impact as possible to wetlands and neighbors.

“Last week’s vote was the result of an unexpected circumstance,” said Rob Hamilton, corporate communications manager for Silicon Ranch. “We have worked with our third-party experts to identify an option that will enable us to reopen the permit and submit new information for this solar facility, which would then allow another vote.”

The proposed project, which was first presented to the council in the first few months of 2021, called for the installation of 28,890 solar panels on 47 of the 157 acres of forested land that the company owns off Route 184. Land used would have included four lots west of Boombridge Road and north of Interstate 95, as well as one lot north of Providence-New London Turnpike.

The project, if approved, would have involved installation of 6.87-foot by 3.41-foot by .11-foot panels and the solar array would generate 9.9 megawatts of electricity, which would be sold to Eversource and United Illuminating.

Silicon Ranch, which owns and operates over 140 solar facilities in 15 states, had purchased the project rights from another developer who had the site pre-selected by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection in 2016. The parcel to the north of Route 184 was later added to the plans and approved by DEEP, but the project was never developed.

During a site walk in late March, neighbors and local residents expressed concerns that the clear-cutting of 44 acres for the project would drastically impact the community, as well as infringe on wetlands throughout the area.

Among concerns were neighbors who said the project could potentially lead to the installation of solar panels within 100 feet of their homes, as well as additional noise pollution created by clear-cutting trees that help serve as a natural buffer separating homes from Interstate 95. Others also expressed concerns that the panels and construction could have permanent, negative effects on groundwater, including an aquifer that serves as a source of water for many in that area.

"This is something that could have long-lasting impacts on this region," said neighboring property owner Catherine Maxwell during the March site walk. "There is a lot of wetlands and archaeological history here, and it would be sad to see that all destroyed to build a solar array."

The concerns alarmed local officials, leading the town to ask the siting council extend the public comment period on the project and triggering the Board of Selectmen to hire an environmental engineer in seeking that the project be relocated instead to the former quarry site near the Rhode Island state line.

Town officials have also been unified in seeking that the council rule that the Silicon Ranch Corp. make adjustments to their master plan in order to scale down the size of the project and protect the vernal pools and wetlands on the property to the north of Route 184.

“We owe it to the citizens on Route 184,” Selectman Bob Carlson said in late April. “There is a lot of concern regarding the impact that this project will have, and there’s also concern regarding whether our town is able to maintain its character.”

Silicon Ranch has expressed opposition to relocating the project, however, noting that it would potentially be more expensive and could also have a greater impact on wildlife if built at the the former quarry.

Silicon Ranch Director of Project Development Ali Weaver told those on the site walk that the project would be more costly if relocation were approved, but the organization would be committed to working with the town to make it happen. The company has since indicated to the siting council that third-party experts had found the gravel pit contained significant environmental resources itself that were worthy of protection, including habitats specifically for the eastern box turtle, spotted turtle and eastern spadefoot toad.

Hamilton said Tuesday that as the company looks at its options following the unforeseen rejection, it is still committed to being good neighbors and long-term partners with the community.

“We look forward to continuing our work with the local community to ensure that this project adds to its rich history while protecting its precious ecosystems, in addition to building on the foundation for what will be a long-term relationship between Silicon Ranch and North Stonington,” he said.

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