Debate Over Alternative Energy Pushes Solar Business Owner To Run For Office

Feb 22, 2016

Rutland Town was one of the first communities in Vermont to establish local standards for siting large-scale solar arrays. And now simmering debate over solar power in the community is spreading into local elections.

Town officials took the step to establish local standards after groSolar proposed building a 2.3 megawatt solar array on land the town plan had designated for commercial and industrial use. The project angered nearby homeowners who said it was too large for the location and would negatively impact what they called historic lands.

Town officials have fought that project and the Public Service Board’s handling of it all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court, which has yet to rule.

Philip Allen and his wife Marlene own Same Sun of Vermont, a Rutland-based company that designs and installs solar arrays, mostly residential. 

Allen says he’s all for local control, but he calls Rutland Town’s solar siting standards ridiculous and says frustration over them pushed him to run for a seat on the town’s select board.

“For instance, they do not want a solar array built that is not 20 percent visible,” says Allen. “So I’ve talked to my engineers, and none of them – and they’re very bright people – can figure out how to design an array that is 80 percent invisible. And that’s just one of the examples of what they passed.”

"If lawyers on the select board can approve legal fees which improves their industry, then a person who's involved in the solar industry should be able to discuss solar." - Philip Allen, Same Sun of Vermont

Allen says townspeople never voted on the standards. He believes local officials created them to stop a specific solar project rather than design realistic guidelines for a rapidly growing industry. 

Meanwhile, he says the town and state are losing out on the tax revenue from the solar project that’s now being challenged.

“They have spent tens of thousands of dollars taking this all the way to the Supreme Court, which the people of Rutland Town have not voted on," says Allen. "And you have to understand that in Rutland Town if we want to give $500 to the Boys and Girls Club, that’s on the ballot.”

Rutland Town Manager Joseph Zingale says to date the town has spent more than $47,000 on solar legal fees. 

These signs appeared along Cold River Road in Rutland Town in 2013 after groSolar announced plans to build a 2.3 megawatt solar array nearby. Neighbors complained of the aesthetic impact of nearly 10,000 solar panels on what they called historic land.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

But he says he’s not gotten any calls from residents angered by this. And Zingale says townspeople who disapprove of the siting standards had the opportunity to circulate a petition to put the resolution on the ballot, which hasn’t happened.

Rutland Town resident Peter Yankowski supports what the select board has done and calls Allen’s decision to run for office self-serving. “He’s a guy in the solar business who wants to come in and get rid of the solar standards in town, standards that have now been accepted by 80 other towns as reasonable siting standards. And he wants to get rid of them because it’s good for his business.”

Yankowski says that’s a clear conflict of interest.

But Philip Allen says considering how much time and money the town has spent dealing with solar issues, and how quickly the field is growing, he believes the board could use someone with expertise. 

"He's a guy in the solar business who wants to come in and get rid of the solar standards in town." - Peter Yankowski, Rutland Town resident

Two even larger solar projects have recently been proposed for the town. Allen says he would recuse himself from any matter that would benefit him financially – just as outgoing Select Board Chair Joe Dicton Jr., an employee of Green Mountain Power, has done with solar issues the utility was involved with.

“When two members of the select board are lawyers and they approve thousands of dollars in legal fees, they’re not the lawyers making the money, but they’re helping the industry make money,” says Allen. “So if lawyers on the select board can approve legal fees which improves their industry, then a person who’s involved in the solar industry should be able to discuss solar.”

Chris Keifer-Cioffi, a former Rutland City police detective, is running against Allen for a one-year term. She says she doesn’t feel his solar business poses any sort of conflict of interest and says she herself is not ready to say how she feels about the town’s solar siting standards. Voters will be able to weigh in on Town Meeting Day.