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Simsbury Debates Trade Off Between Green Farmland And Green Energy

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Deepwater Wind, the group behind the nation's first offshore wind farm, is now proposing a massive clean energy project in Connecticut. The company wants to build what could be one of region's largest solar farms in Simsbury.

The development would put solar panels on private land currently farmed for crops. If built, the company said the project will generate enough energy to power about 5,000 homes.

Deepwater Wind's CEO, Jeff Grybowski, said the location is ideal.

“It's a large tract of land that's flat and already cleared,” Grybowski said. “And it's right next to a big transmission system, so it is a perfect place for a solar project.”

Deepwater Wind has held several voluntary public meetings to explain the project, listening to concerns from residents about turning farmland into a solar field.

Grybowski said his company met with nearby property owners, proposed visual screens to hide the project, and scaled back the land on which the solar panels will be placed -- from about 300 acres to around 150 acres.

“We want to be good neighbors, and in general, we think solar farms are really good neighbors,” Grybowski said. “There's not a lot of activity that happens at a solar project, once it's built.”

But at a recent public meeting on Thursday in Simsbury, dissatisfaction was still apparent.

“It is a little frustrating,” said Lisa Heavner, Simsbury's First Selectman. “I think our local boards would have a better understanding of what's important to our community and be better positioned to evaluate it.”

Heavner is talking about how, right now, Connecticut law allows Deepwater Wind to apply directly to the state Siting Council to get approval for their project, instead of going through municipal approvals.

Deepwater Wind’s Project is part of a three-state energy Clean Energy RFP, which includes Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Last year, the states collectively selected projects, which will feed energy into New England’s grid.

Deepwater Wind’s Grybowski said his company worked out contracts for the Simsbury proposal with three utilities in Massachusetts: National Grid, Eversource, and Fitchburg Electric.

“We have to go through a pretty rigorous process to demonstrate to the state that this project is a good one, and those are all the rules we are going to follow,” Grybowski said. “Those decisions, generally, get made at a state level because these are facilities that are intended to serve either the state, or, frankly, the entire region.”

But for Simsbury Selectman Sean Askham, and a number of other residents Thursday night, concerns were more local -- things like the project’s impact on Simsbury’s character and its homes.

“It's great that a project could generate tax revenue, but if we lose it all through loss of property value, is there a true benefit to the town?” Askham said.

“It’s interesting because we’re not on opposite sides, but we feel like we’re pulling on opposite sides,” said Simsbury resident Laura Nigro. “We’re trading green farmland for green energy without a thoughtful plan. We can have both, if we just pause.”

Deepwater Wind's Grybowski said his company plans to submit a detailed proposal to Connecticut’s Siting Council in the coming days.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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