By TAYLOR HARTZ
Earlier this week, Judge James Abrams of the New Britain Superior Court ruled that the Town of Southington violated their own zoning regulations by not applying for a special permit before approving the solar-panel project for Hatton Meadow.
The decision came in reaction to the town’s Power Purchase Agreement with Greenskies LLC of Middletown to begin construction on the solar array last month.
The Community Coalition to Save Hatton’s (CCSH) argued before the court that the referral was not fitting, but the judge found that the project did follow the rules of an 8-24 referral (which pertains to municipal improvements).
On the other hand, Abrams ruled that the project still would have required a special permit under zoning regulation 3-01.2 (which pertains to improvements made in residential zones), but that process wasn’t done properly.
Robert Phillips, Director of Planning and Community Development, was called as an expert witness for the trial.
Phillips explained to the court that the Hatton Meadow Property, 50 Spring Lake Rd., was purchased over 50 years ago to host Hatton Elementary School and any future expansion. Phillips said that, since the property was purchased to accommodate future school expansion, the solar array would qualify as a municipal improvement project as “an addition to the existing use.”
While Rosenberg argued that it was “erroneous” for the town to consider the project “existing use,” the judge ruled that there was no evidence to support those claims. He further ruled that Phillips was a credible source for his determination.
Abrams’ ruling did determine that the Planning and Zoning Commission (PZC) properly used the 8-24 referral for the project, but the judge agreed with Rosenberg’s argument that the town violated their zoning regulations by not applying for a special permit, which would have required a public hearing on the project.
Members of the CCHS have expressed concern that they were not allowed to voice their opinions in a public hearing.
In order to be compliant with zoning regulations the town would have needed to exempt itself from the need for a special permit. The court ruled that Southington and Greenskies must comply with the requirement of a special permit application before they continue with the project.
Rosenberg said he considers this decision a win for his clients. Based on the judge’s decision, the CCSH won their argument that the town’s process for the project was improper, but there is still more to be determined in October regarding plans for solar panels on Hatton Meadow.
“It’s not a complete victory,” said Rosenberg, who explained that the bifurcated case still involves a second phase of hearings regarding damages and permanency of the injunction. For that hearing on Oct. 21, he expects a “battle of the experts.”
Rosenberg said he thinks the next phase will compare irreversible damages that will be incurred if construction begins on the meadow with economic damages facing the town and Greenskies while the project is delayed.
Democratic Town Councilor John Barry, who first proposed that the council revoke their approval of the plan, said the big question is how the town council will proceed. Will the town appeal the court’s decision or go back to the drawing board for the project?
While Barry said he is in favor of solar installations in Southington, he thinks there are “so many variables that need to be examined and explored” for this particular project.
Barry said he and fellow democrats have spoken up with their opinion that the process was not done properly, but said the decision of how to proceed from here is up to the majority party.
Republican Town Chairman Mike Riccio said he was happy to hear that the 8-24 process was handled properly, but he found the court’s ruling that the PZC should have held a public hearing “mind boggling” and “perplexing.”
Riccio said he believes the entire process was handled properly, and he hopes “to see solar panels at Hatton School in some way, shape, or form.”
The chairman noted that in its initial proposal, the project had “unilateral, bipartisan support” from the PZC, the council, and the Board of Education, and he hopes that Hatton will soon be home to solar power.
“It’s unfortunate that three or four neighbors outweigh the benefits to the other 40,000 residents of Southington,” he said.