BETHANY — When his family first settled into the two-story colonial with picturesque windows looking out into the garden and the tree line beyond, Dominick Scaramuzzino thought the view encompassed the town’s motto, “rural is beautiful.”
Scaramuzzino, a retired Yale scientist, said he quickly grew to enjoy the quiet of Bethany, with a population of just a few thousand, as well as watching the wildlife that occasionally wandered out of woods behind his home. Excitedly, he tells of the time he glimpsed a bald eagle soaring over the pine trees.
So he was shocked last fall to discover that more than 20 acres of land abutting his property had been sold, and that a developer planned to construct thousands of solar panels on a portion of the land just steps from his backyard.
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“We just assumed because we were in a residential, rural community, it would always be a rural, residential community, and we wouldn’t have to have to fight these battles,” Scaramuzzino said.
The proposal by the developer, California-based TRITEC Americas, to construct a solar photovoltaic facility in Bethany is one of dozens of similar projects under construction or in planning around Connecticut, part of the state’s efforts to rid itself of emissions from fossil-fuel burning power plants by 2040.
As both governments and developers seek to ramp up construction of renewable energy projects, they are also facing growing scrutiny from local residents, even in climate-conscious locales such as New York, Vermont and Connecticut, according to Kirt Mayland, former solar developer and fellow at the University of Connecticut’s Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation.
“There’s this growing conflict between the environmental community and renewables over whether or not we should just put up as much solar as we can as fast as we can,” Mayland said. “Obviously the solar community feels one way and the environmentalists are starting to push back on sites like this.”
The controversy over the Bethany development was first stirred when neighbors began receiving notices in the mail from TRITEC last September. Soon, signs began sprouting up along the acre-sized lots on Bethmour Road near the site of the proposed project, urging their neighbors to fight the “commercial solar field.”
Homeowners who lived nearby researched what had happened in other communities adjacent to solar arrays, including complaints about a “high-pitched ringing noise” from those living next to a much larger facility in East Windsor. They solicited petitions opposing the project, and set up their own website.
After an initial set of meetings last fall at which town officials and local residents voiced their concerns, TRITEC agreed to reduce the size of the proposed solar facility to 6.5 acres, while reducing the output from 1.3 megawatts to .99 megawatts, enough to power several hundred homes. In addition, the company promised other steps to minimize the impact on neighbors such as planting a “buffer” of evergreens, according to Paul Michaud, an attorney representing TRITEC.
“Unlike other towns where you have these sprawling, enormous solar systems, this is not that,” Michaud said. “This is almost as small as you can get.”
The decision to reduce the size of the array below one megawatt also meant that jurisdiction to approve the project fell to local authorities rather than the Connecticut Siting Council, a state agency established in 1972 to determine where to place power plants, transmission lines and other essential utilities in communities that are rarely welcoming to such projects. In order to get around the change, TRITEC has filed to waive its exclusion from the Siting Council’s authority, which would place the decision back in the state’s hands.
Michaud cast the local opposition to the project as akin to the “regular, plain, vanilla NIMBYism” that the Siting Council was created to overcome.
“From a historical point of view, for the past 100 years, large, dirty power plants, fossil-fuel-fired power plants, were sited in low-income, economically-distressed communities for example Bridgeport, Waterbury, Montville,” Michaud said. “These same Bethany residents who were fine with those communities bearing the brunt as long as they could turn their lights on say they support renewable energy, but they just don’t want that energy generation in their idyllic town.”
Neighbors, however, say that their issues with the project are more than just aesthetic.
The nearby homes are not connected to a public water system, and residents fear that herbicides and chemicals used to clean the solar panels will runoff and leach into the groundwater, which also feeds the wells that supply drinking water. Locals have also pointed to the presence of wild animals inhabiting the property, including the endangered northern long-eared bat, which they say will be disrupted by the construction.
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Even an attempt to classify the array as an “agrivoltaic” project by installing several hives of honeybees has led to conflict. Several neighbors, including Scaramuzzino, say that the hives were built without an adequate source of water, sending the bees swarming into neighboring yards and pools in search of water.
“The whole thing is just a big farce, they're trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes to get this thing through,” said Andrew Black, who lives across the street from the site and launched an online petition seeking to halt the development.
At a town meeting last week, Bethany’s Board of Selectmen voted to draft a letter to the Siting Council formally opposing the proposed development, which officials wrote had left them “dumbfounded,” due to the residential character of the area and concerns raised by neighbors.
In an interview on Wednesday, Michaud said that many of the claims made by residents and incorporated into the town’s letter were “patently false” and “legally unsupported and sloppy,” and noted that the proposal was reviewed by the Council of Environmental Quality, which offered several comments on how to minimize visibility and protect water resources that TRITEC plans to implement.
Adding to the layers of the dispute is the existence of at least two alternative sites within Bethany that have been pitched by both local officials and TRITEC as suitable for solar development.
The first site, a 139-acre property owned by the town, was first proposed during a meeting with local officials, according to Michaud, leading TRITEC to put together a plan for a solar array with ten times the potential power of the location on Bethmour Road. After that proposal was submitted to First Selectman Paula Cofrancesco, Michaud said the company never received a response and moved ahead with a scaled-down version of the original project (Cofrancesco was unavailable for comment last week, according to her assistant).
The second alternate site, which the town proposed in its letter to the Siting Council, is located on commercial land that once housed a chemical research facility, and which is potentially contaminated by leaking underground storage tanks.
Asked about the potential to move the proposed facility to either location, Michaud said that TRITEC remained open to considering alternative locations but has yet to enter into talks with town officials.
Pointing to Connecticut’s manifold programs created to spur solar development, as well as the looming deadlines to wean the state off of fossil-fuels, Michaud argued that the type of opposition that has unfolded in Bethany runs afoul of legislation passed by lawmakers to confront climate change.
Solar accounted for just 3 percent of the power generated in Connecticut in 2021, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, but was the state’s largest source of renewable energy.
“Renewable energy is not just a preference, it’s the law in Connecticut,” Michaud said.
Still, on Wednesday, the Siting Council agreed to hold a public hearing to listen to the resident’s concerns about the proposal in Bethany. On the council’s agenda for the same day were a variety of petitions related to four other solar projects around the state.
While outlining their concerns, neighbors like Scaramuzzino make a point to explain that their opposition lies not with the push for solar — he calls climate change an “existential crisis” — but with thought of disturbing what they see as a natural, bucolic setting.
“It’s something we recognize has to be done,” Scaramuzzino said. “There’s just better places to do it.”