New solar project coming to Williston

Observer contributed illustration Aegis Renewable Energy has received approval from the Public Service Board to install solar panels on property on North Williston Road.
Observer contributed illustration
Aegis Renewable Energy has received approval from the Public Service Board to install solar panels on property on North Williston Road.

Project includes conservation of 104 acres

By Stephanie Choate

Observer correspondent

Williston could be generating more solar power this summer, adding to its growing reputation as a solar powerhouse.

Aegis Renewable Energy received approval from the Public Service Board in February to install solar panels on Mike and Dan Fontaine’s property on North Williston Road. The property is the site of the Fontaine’s former sand pit.

Williston is already home to the state’s second-largest solar array, located on land owned by GlobalFoundries. It also hosts one of just five U.S. Department of Energy test sites for solar energy products.

Nils Behn, president and CEO of Waitsfield-based Aegis, said the company plans to begin construction in April and complete the work in June or sooner. The project would include approximately 2,000 solar panels, and will produce enough energy to power 85 homes.

“The array will be in the middle of the sand pit completely surrounded by trees around the perimeter,” Behn said. “It can’t be seen by any residential home or business anywhere. It’s a great utilization of an already impacted piece of land.”

The panels will be mounted on driven piles, without concrete foundations.

“It’s really what the state is going for with future solar development in that it has almost no impact whatsoever on the environment or surrounding aesthetics,” Behn said.

Behn pointed to another benefit of the North Williston project: conservation.

As part of the project, Aegis and the Fontaine brothers have agreed to convey a 104-acre conservation easement to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. The Fontaines would still own the property.

Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department staff briefed the Williston Selectboard about the conservation project during its March 21 meeting, asking the town to provide support. Although the town will have no formal role, the Fish and Wildlife Department’s policy is to inform towns of its easement projects and address any concerns.

Mike Fontaine said the conservation easement was a requirement from the state to allow the solar project. Fontaine said while they don’t mind conserving the land, he doesn’t like the way the state mandated it.

The Fontaines had previously sought to build a 34-unit subdivision on the property called Settlers Village. However, the state denied their Act 250 permit for the project, as well as all subsequent appeals, stating that the development would impact a critical wintering habitat for white-tailed deer. A provision in Act 250 states that habitat should be preserved if it is crucial for the survival of a local population of wildlife.

“That’s all we had left,” Fontaine said of the solar project. “We couldn’t get any housing done.”

The proposed Fish and Wildlife easement would seek to protect those deer wintering grounds.

The easement would allow for the solar panels and an existing camp and sugaring operations, as well as some non-motorized public recreation use aside from an existing VAST trail, according to a memo from the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.

It would prohibit subdivision or residential development, mining or commercial use and new roads or easements without permission.

The Conservation Commission reviewed the easement plans at the beginning of March, and members are supportive.

The Selectboard did not take any action on March 21, asking for more information on possible tax impacts before making a decision.