Brandon selectboard OKs solar site, spends $500,000 in ARPA funds


BRANDON — The Brandon selectboard on Monday threw its support behind a proposed site for 2,200 kW solar array on private land off of Steinberg Road that has a small window of visibility from Routes 7 and 73.

Among the other significant decisions that night, the board approved motions to finance a major water project serving 58 homes in Forest Dale and partially finance a sewer pump station on Newton Road.
The Brandon Planning Commission had already approved the large solar project, commission Chari Liz Gregorek said at the meeting. The commission recommended the selectboard also OK the project and draft a memorandum of understanding to aid in the developer’s proposal to the Vermont Public Utility Commission (PUC). After discussion, the selectboard gave its unanimous support.

The developer, MHG Renewables, said the site sits more than 1,300 feet from Route 7 and 300-plus feet from Route 73, and they are developing plans to shield visibility of the solar array with tree planting and other vegetation.

Explaining why this site was chosen, MHG noted under “community integration and impact” that the project was a “unique opportunity to partner with SolarFest to provide a stable, long-term home for them, which will lead to economic and community development opportunities for Brandon year round.” Last year, SolarFest had listed Brandon as a leading candidate in which to build a permanent, year-around home for the popular solar festival.

As an added benefit to Brandon, the solar project will bring in $3,000 per year of additional land taxes and $13,000 per year of personal property taxes on the solar array.

MHG has also engaged a third-party partner, Agrivoltaic Solutions, to manage the vegetation within the fenced-in array using sheep.

“This dual use — solar energy and sheep grazing — creates additional benefits to farmers and the local community,” the company said.

If approved by the PUC, construction would begin in the spring of 2024 with expected completion in the fall or early winter of 2024. During PUC deliberations on the permit, the town of Brandon will ask to have party status.

After several weeks of discussion, the selectboard also approved spending up to $120,000 to consolidate Brandon Fire District #2 with Brandon Fire District #1. This would be accomplished by installing a new 8-inch water main from BFD#1’s water main on North Street along Deer Run Road and connecting to BFD#2’s water main. After that was accomplished, BFD#2’s well would be disconnected and the reservoir and pump house would be demolished. This would benefit the 58 homes in the Forest Brook residential development in Forest Dale. The money used to finance this project would be from ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in the first few months of his presidency.

The board wasn’t done with allocation of ARPA funds. Following approval of the fire districts consolidation, Selectman Tracy Wyman made a motion the selectboard use $730,700 of ARPA money to finance replacement of the pump station on Newton Road. The selectboard has been discussing how and when to replace this pump station for several months and had agreed that it was a suitable project for ARPA funding, which totals around $1 million. Wyman’s motion, however, drew considerable discussion about whether it was prudent to spend such a large chunk of the federal funds on that one project or whether it was better to spread it around to projects not normally funded in routine town business.
Selectman Tim Guiles emphasized that the one-time ARPA funding was provided to towns in the hopes that large projects that might not have been realistic under normal circumstances could be financed, but that projects like replacing a sewage pump station were routine and could be funded as the town has always done them — through bonds, state grants and regular operational spending.

“The $730,700 is such a big chunk of ARPA funding,” Guiles noted. “It takes away from what else we could fund.”

Board Chairman Seth Hopkins said he also was not in a hurry to obligate so much into a single project
“I’m concerned about who gets the benefit from the sewer system versus who gets the benefit from spending the ARPA funds that could be more widespread throughout the community,” he said.
As for replacing the Newton Road Pump Station, Hopkins said he thought the town “should consider funding it the same way we have done in the past.”

There was a back-and-forth discussion on the issue for about 15 minutes, including Town Manager Dave Atherton noting the dire condition of the pump station and noting it had to be fixed in the very near future. Ratepayers of the town’s sewage system routinely pay for such repairs and upgrades.
All of the selectboard members agreed the pump station needed to be upgraded immediately, and in the end compromised on an amendment by Guiles that allocated spending half of the $730,7000 through ARPA funds and the remaining half funded in the traditional manner. That would leave about $500,000 in ARPA funding for other town projects.

On that amendment and the final vote, the board split in two 3-2 decisions, with Tracy Wyman and Brian Coolidge voting to spend all $730,700 in ARPA funding on the pump station, and Guiles, Hopkins and Mike Markowski voting to split the funding and finance half of the project through ARPA money.

In other business, the selelctboard:
• Heard a presentation from the Otter Creek Watershed Insect Control District and noted that Brandon is looking for an alternate delegate to serve on that board. Brandon has two representatives, but in case one cannot make a meeting, the alternate has full voting privileges and attends all board meetings. Hopkins put out a call for any interested person to give any selectboard member or Town Manager David Atherton a call.
• Heard an appeal from Jim Emerson of Brandon’s Energy Committee to launch a town-wide survey on current energy use so they had a comparative point to track the reduction of carbon use in the future. The town responded that they had allocated sufficient funding for such a survey in the current budget ($2,500) but that would not be available until early summer, if the budget passes at town meeting. The energy committee was encouraged to push forward with the survey and save those parts that required significant spending until the money was available.
• Reviewed Annual Town Meeting preparations, noting that the information hearing would be held via Zoom on Monday, Feb. 28, and voting was by mail or in person at the American Legion on Tuesday, March 1. Further details will be provided in the Feb. 23 issue of The Reporter.
• An executive session was held to discuss personnel issues with no action taken.

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