SPARTA, NJ – The Sparta Planning Board, led by Chairman Ernie Hofer, grilled representatives of Vanguard Energy Partners about the Sussex County County solar project at the last meeting on Dec 16. Hofer and other board members expressed dissatisfaction with the testimony given the representatives of the construction company related to the solar projects slated to be installed on three Sparta schools; Sparta Middle School, Sparta High School and Sussex County Technical School.
At the end of the presentation Hofer said, “I find this unacceptable. We have a problem with transparency before and now here we are. We have ‘assumptions’ and ‘I believes’ and so on.”
The three were at the meeting to present the amended plans for the projects. Most of the testimony was given by Josh Hanrahan, Professional Civil Engineer. There was also a representative from Vanguard and their attorney.
Because these are Capital Improvement projects the Sparta Planning Board only has the authority to review and make recommendations and approve a resolution that affirms the plans have been presented and are deemed to be in compliance with zoning ordinances and the township Master Plan. According to the board’s attorney, Thomas Collins, the board could not require changes, though they could make recommendations that he felt confident the county would give serious consideration.
Over and over Hofer, Deputy Chairman George Zacsek and Deputy Mayor Christine Quinn expressed concern about the lack of knowledge and inability of the representative to give answers to their questions.
The tangled web of engineers, installers and owners was at times difficult to sort out. Vanguard Energy Partners are the engineers, creating the plans that have been substantially changed since their first approval several years ago.
Sunlight General will be the installers. The owners are both the county Freeholders and the school boards of education.
Hofer was questioning “who owned what” and who would receive the benefits and assume liability. The Board’s attorney Collins said the board’s role was to look at planning aspects of the project, “the financing is not typically reviewed by this board.” Reminding them of their role he said, “We are here to review the changes,” to the project.
Hofer responded by saying they did not wish to get involved in the finances but “who owns what is fundamental to the project.”
The scope of the solar projects have changed significantly, since initially proposed. The Helen Morgan School building has been completely removed following concerns about the integrity of the roof structures. Additionally, Superintendent Dennis Tobin had reported the district recently purchased equipment to remove snow from the roof and its use will be compromised with panels on the roof.
Sparta Middle School will no longer have canopy arrays or covered parking areas in the parking lots. Instead, the number of ground mounted panels has been increased. The 1656 panels will be installed on the front yard of the school to be surrounded by a “six foot black vinyl coated chain link fence.”
Mayor Jerry Murphy asked about landscaping that had been a previous recommendation but was not included in the current plans. The response was that it could be considered. Several of the board members were concerned about the aesthetic of the large solar field. The engineer argued it was not visible from 517 because of existing trees. Quinn argued there were no trees where he was indicating.
At the Sparta High School, the canopy arrays were also removed and additional panels were added to the roofs bringing the total to 1994 panels. In addition the new plans called for two “metal boxes, 20 inches wide by two feet high side by side, with four inch conduit going to the roof,” to be mounted on the front exterior of the new high school entrance. Collins later requested if that could be moved to someplace less conspicuous. “We could look into that,” was the response from Hanrahan.
The Sussex County Technical School has a large number of panels added to the plan, totaling 3092. The troubling part of the plan for the board was that there were to be ground mounted panels installed in a parking lot eliminating “88 parking spaces” and on a portion near the north track and Route 94 where there were conflicting recollections about the county’s future plans for the area. Additional panels were to be added to the “third base line of the baseball field.”
Regarding the board’s concern about the loss of valuable parking spots the attorney for Vanguard said “that was one part of the plan that has remained consistent.”
While Sparta High School, Middle School and Helen Morgan schools have an independent superintendent and elected board of education, the county freeholders appoint the members of the board of education for the technical school, that also includes the Executive County Superintendent Dr Rosalie Lamone.
Some of the questions that caused confusion had to do with the panels themselves. Quinn had many questions about impact to the public schools. She questioned the start date of the warrantees, given that the panels were purchased more than four years ago and have been “sitting in storage somewhere” waiting to be installed. “Do the warrantees begin when they are installed or did it start when they were purchased,” asked Quinn. Vanguard did not have an answer.
“The technology has not changed in four years?” she asked. The answer was that four years ago these were state of the art and now they are still in the range of output of what is being installed.
Quinn went on to ask about who assumed liability in the event of a roofing issue due to the panels. “To my knowledge it would be the owner, Sunlight, the county. It is unclear to me at this time,” was the response.
Quinn, “Is there an expected [energy cost] savings to the schools?” Answer from Vanguard was, “Yes, but we don’t know how much.”
There were concerns about who would be responsible for removing the panels from the schools when the 15 year contract was finished. The board members were told they thought it would be Sunlight Energy, the installers. That raised additional concerns because it did not appear that Sunlight Energy was being required to post any surety bonds. Vanguard was not definitive in the answer to the question of who would have to pay to have them removed at the end of the contract, if the installer, Sunlight Energy, was no longer in business.
Many board members expressed concern about the lack of any indication from any of the schools that the plans had been approved by the boards of education. “Who is making all of the decisions?” asked Quinn.
Board member Jim Henderson also raised concerns about the overall impact of the projects to the township. “I don’t get the feeling the aesthetics is a priority for the project. It could potentially affect the way the town looks.” Henderson went on to say they needed to “weigh the savings versus the potential change to the aesthetics to the town.”
Quinn used the term “solar litter” to describe her concern about the look of driving through town and seeing solar panels everywhere.
Henderson also expressed concern that the schools felt forced to continue with the solar projects, “that they have no choice,” and that there were no longer real benefits to the project.
Hofer added that he assumed the capital available now “is less than four years ago.” He was concerned the design was restricted by the funding and there would be “less for things like screening.”
Collins said, “The government can cooperate with the planning board if they are given information and they so desire.” The board compiled a list of items they wanted addressed or changed. They did not take any vote.
Sparta Superintendent Tobin has given a status report at each board of education meeting for the past several months saying, “The language of the contract is still being worked out with the [school district’s] attorney.”
The planning board requested the Vanguard representatives return at a later date to answer their questions.