Conflict stalls MVC action on Cronig's solar canopy project
Photo courtesy of South Mountain Company
Resolving a conflict of interest may delay a Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) decision on a project to install canopies topped with solar panels in the Cronig's Market parking lot on State Road in Vineyard Haven.
The project is under review as a development of regional impact (DRI). At a poorly attended public hearing on February 2, a majority of commissioners revealed that they or a family member belong to Vineyard Power (VP), a community-owned renewable energy cooperative and a co-applicant for the project with Cronig's Market owner Steve Bernier.
Vineyard Power Solar, a subsidiary of VP, will lease the Cronig's location and own the solar array.
The MVC is awaiting guidance from the state ethics commission. A lengthy delay could affect the start of the project, which calls for an April start date.
Commissioner Doug Sederholm, a lawyer and hearing chairman, raised the conflict issue at the beginning of a public hearing last Thursday. Mr. Sederholm polled the 12 commissioners present and determined that nine had a membership stake in Vineyard Power.
VP president Richard Andre said that the cooperative's members, who pay a one-time fee to join, would not receive direct financial benefit from the Cronig's project. He added that at some point in the future, VP members might receive benefits in the form of reduced electrical rates.
Mr. Sederholm said that since almost all of the commissioners present would have to recuse themselves based on that criteria, he thought that they could proceed based on the "rule of necessity," which allows a board to act when a majority is in a conflict situation and would otherwise be unable to act.
Mr. Sederholm also recommended that the MVC seek an opinion from counsel prior to making a final decision on the project.
On Monday, MVC lawyer Gareth Orsmond from the firm of Rackemann, Sawyer and Brewster advised the commission to seek an opinion from the state ethics commission.
That night, the MVC's land use planning committee (LUPC) concluded its review of the project and voted unanimously to recommend its approval to the full commission Thursday night.
Based on counsel's advice, MVC chairman Chris Murphy said he spoke with Bill Veno, the commission's senior planner, after the LUPC meeting and recommended that he call the ethics commission.
"It's unfortunate if it's going to delay this project even a minute," Mr. Murphy said on Tuesday, "but usually the ethics commission gives you an oral answer pretty quickly, and then they follow up with a written one."
Whether the MVC would be able to move forward with a decision this week would depend on what the commission learns from the initial oral decision requested from the ethics commission, Mr. Murphy said.
Written decisions are issued in response to written requests and take about 30 days, an ethics commission employee told The Times.
At last week's public hearing, commissioners expressed concern over an apparent lack of public interest. The hearing attracted one Tisbury resident and no correspondence from town boards or the public.
The only comment came from Bill Straw, who identified himself as a solar installer who had previously worked in New York. Although Mr. Straw works for Fullers Energy, a company based in New Jersey that also has an office on Martha's Vineyard, he was not speaking as a representative of the company.
"As a resident of Tisbury, I'm not pleased to see this kind of design going in," Mr. Straw said. "It kind of reminds me of Ft. Lauderdale, and I don't think it fits the nature of the Vineyard."
Mr. Straw, Tisbury's representative to the Cape Light Compact and Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative, added that he favors solar projects, but would prefer solar panels on the roof at the Cronig's Market location, rather than the parking lot canopies.
John Abrams, president of South Mountain Company (SMC), which will install the solar canopies, told the MVC that although not required to do so, his company had met with the Tisbury Planning Board.
"Henry Stephenson mentioned that stretch of State Road is void of street trees and there is an opportunity to possibly improve it," Mr. Abrams said.
"I'm married to a member of the planning board, and it is my understanding they were satisfied," commissioner Holly Stephenson of Tisbury said.
Commissioner Linda Sibley of West Tisbury, who owns a Radio Shack franchise in a building adjacent to the parking lot, said she was concerned about the lack of comment.
"There certainly does not seem to be an outbreak of public concern over this project, but I'm curious whether people are really paying a lot of attention," Ms. Sibley said. She suggested the hearing be extended.
In response to Ms. Sibley's concerns, the MVC agreed to keep the public record open until noon Monday in advance of the LUPC meeting later that day.
The MVC received nine letters. Six expressed support for the project and two opposed it.
A joint letter from Tisbury planning board chairmen Henry Stephenson and Tony Peak gave the project mixed reviews. They said the solar canopies would conflict with the planning board's policy to restore a tree canopy along State Road. Their letter was not based on a vote by the board or endorsed by the rest of its members. The project does not require a permit from Tisbury's planning board because it will be built in an already existing parking lot.
"The planning board is, for the most part, supportive of the proposal by Vineyard Power to install a series of photovoltaic solar arrays in the Cronig's parking lot," the pair said. "However, there may be some conflict between the installation of these arrays (especially the installation in the lot facing State Road) and the planning board's long-standing policy of restoring the tree-canopy along State Road which has been eroded over time by the expansion of commercial development in this area."
Mr. Peak and Mr. Stephenson questioned whether some of the solar panels could be installed on the Cronig's Market roof. Neither man had attended the public hearing, where Mr. Abrams said the existing roof frame would not support the solar arrays.
Mr. Peak told The Times on Tuesday that he was sick and Mr. Stephenson was out of town on the night of the public hearing. He said he did attend the LUPC meeting and apologized for their "11th hour" letter.
"I have concerns about how it will look," Mr. Peak said. "I'm hoping that if they do it the way they talk about, it will be something not glaringly obnoxious."
Robert Skydell of Chilmark wrote in an email that it was time for the Island to get on with renewables. "The fact that a few detractors have cast aspersions on this project, mostly for aesthetic reasons (of a parking lot!) seems incomprehensible to me," he said.
Trevor Good said he favored solar panels on rooftops or low on the ground out of sight. "What is being proposed at Cronig's Market is completely out of scale and character for State Road," Mr. Trevor wrote.
Kathleen Tilton said she was concerned about the project's visual impact. Her handwritten letter concluded, "Please take the Fort Lauderdale comment seriously, these canopies remind me of highway gas stations. There has to be another way."
Plans call for the installation of three "Solaire" solar canopies above the existing Cronig's parking lot. They are expected to generate an estimated 250,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity a year.
The Cronig's project is one of several public and private solar energy projects on Martha's Vineyard moving forward quickly through state and local regulatory boards.
In most cases, the energy the panels produce does not flow directly to the host, for example Vineyard Power, and later, under the terms of the lease agreement, Cronig's. The savings come in the form of a credit from the utility company. Later, Vineyard Power will get a credit roughly equal to the retail price of energy, which it can use to offset its electric bills.
Power produced by the solar arrays goes directly into the regional electric grid, along with energy generated by oil, coal, natural gas, hydro, and nuclear plants. Federal and state laws require power companies to generate a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources. Power companies purchase power from various sources to meet the requirements.
This story was corrected on February 10 to clarify that Bill Straw represented himself and not Fuller Energy in his comments on the solar panels.