Gaps in two rows of panels show yet more panels at a solar farm that was installed in late 2018 at a former landfill site next to the local town office in Tremont, Maine. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Citing concerns about the potential for overdevelopment from solar power projects, Ellsworth has adopted a 6-month moratorium on permit applications for medium and large solar farms in the city.

The Ellsworth City Council voted 6-0 (Councilor John Phillips was absent) to adopt the moratorium, which went into effect last week. Six commercial solar projects that already have been permitted by the city will not be subject to the moratorium.

“We know some of the impact [of solar farms], but I don’t believe as a city we know the full impact,” Dale Hamilton, chair of the City Council, said before the moratorium was adopted. “I think we need a little bit of time to get a better understanding about how this all works.”

He said he did not have any concerns about the solar power industry in general, but just wants to “ensure that we don’t fall short with planning on this particular issue.”

Among the aspects Hamilton said he wants to learn more about are the potential local impacts of decommissioning solar sites, what sort of impact such sites might have on city services or infrastructure, what other development needs or pressures exist in Ellsworth, and whether solar farms provide any direct benefits to local communities aside from property taxes.

No other city councilors spoke, and no one commented during a short public hearing on the matter, when the council voted on the measure on Oct. 18.

The moratorium applies only to medium-scale projects, which the city defines as those with between 1,750 square feet and 40,000 square feet of panel surface area, and to large-scale projects, which each have 40,000 square feet or more of solar panels. Small-scale projects, which typically are designed to serve just one home or building, are not subject to the moratorium.

Elena Piekut, Ellsworth’s city planner, said Tuesday that there are six solar farms planned for Ellsworth that have received city approval for development, but construction has not started on all of them. All together, the six sites are expected to occupy roughly 130 acres and to have an electrical generating capacity of about 20 megawatts. Generally speaking, 1 megawatt is enough electricity to power hundreds of average homes each year.

The projects include two 5,000-panel sites planned for Route 180, two sites on Bucksport Road that each would have roughly 17,000 panels, a 9,000-panel site on Gilpatrick Road and an 8,000 panel site planned for Nicolin Road.

Piekut said that the city has allocated $35,000 in this year’s budget to start the process of updating its comprehensive plan, which could include new local development standards for solar farms. But she added that the process of updating and adopting the city’s comprehensive plan — which the state requires every municipality to do at least once every 10 years — could take a year or more.

Still, Piekut said she expects to recommend some solar-related changes to the city’s land use zoning ordinance before the moratorium expires in April 2022.

“I don’t think [a comprehensive plan] update is a prerequisite to improving upon the city’s zoning and performance standards,” Piekut said. “We have seen enough of these developments now to have a sense of where the regulations could be a little better, and of how developers identify sites that suit the use.”

There are other significant solar power projects being developed in Hancock County outside of Ellsworth.

Just across the city line in the town of Hancock, on land owned by Merrill’s Blueberry Farms along Washington Junction Road, a 20-megawatt project is under construction. The project, in which Dirigo Solar has partnered with BNRG Renewables, is one of eight that the two firms are developing in Maine, including solar farms planned in Auburn, Augusta, Fairfield, Milo, Oxford, Palmyra and Winslow.

In eastern Hancock County, in Township 16 near the Washington County line, Swift Current Energy plans to bring the Three Rivers Solar 100-megawatt project online in 2023.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....