SWIFTWATER, Pa. – Pocono Township commissioners voted Monday to approve a plan to build Pennsylvania's largest solar field on a mountain slope, despite pleas by some residents to reject that project for environmental concerns, or at least delay it.
Commissioners voted 4-1, with member Ellen Gnandt opposed, to accept Swiftwater Solar's preliminary final plan for the $111 million, 80-megawatt field on a private 644-acre site on top of Bear Mountain that would include about 200,000 solar panels.
Gnandt asked to delay a vote on the project so a public hearing could be held, but the township solicitor said the deadline to vote on the project was Thursday, after which it would be deemed approved.
Gnandt asked developer Apex Clean Energy of Charlottesville, Virginia, to agree to a delay, but Jeff Hammond, director of project development for Apex, said the company has spent nearly two years on the project and wasn't sure its opponents would ever accept it.
However, commissioners conditioned the approval on Apex agreeing to post a bond to restore any damage to township roads from construction of the project and logging to clear the site.
Hammond said it is "common practice" to bond repairs that would return roads to previous conditions. He said Apex likely will improve roads for its work.
After a 45-minute public comment period early in the meeting in which 10 speakers were largely critical of the project, Gnandt successfully reopened the comment period before the final vote, though it brought only five more speakers who repeated earlier points.
Also speaking during the second period was township planning commission Secretary Michael Velardi, who said planners spent two years dealing with the proposal before recommending conditional approval, subject to required approval of outside agencies, including the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
"And all of a sudden, people come to the meeting with their hair on fire," Velardi said. "We've run this up and down the flagpole so many times, the rope's on fire."
He added, "I encourage the board to go forward with this, and bring Pocono Township into the 21st Century."
The project would be owned by Vitol, a Dutch energy trading company, and built on land Apex bought in August 2020. The property is east of Interstate 380, adjacent to Sullivan Trail and Back Mountain Road in what now is zoned as a recreational district.
Township planners first accepted the plan for review on June 14, 2021.
Developers have said it would disturb 476 acres, but some public speakers Monday questioned that.
Resident Greg Mentz said he was "struck by how massive" the project is, and said it more likely would remove trees and other vegetation from 560 or more acres.
"The plan is to completely denude, in various steps, a mountaintop … removing all the trees, vegetation and root systems — what stabilizes the soil," making it easily erode, Mentz said.
Tom Wise, who said he was a mechanical engineer with 33 years in the power industry, said he believes the project will denude closer to 640 acres of what he called "pristine woodland." He called it "a terrible choice for this location."
Wise said the area is home to otters, eagles and a multitude of other creatures. "Where are the animals going to go?" he asked.
Alex Jackson, president of the Brodhead Watershed Association, said, "Simply put, the mountain cannot handle this level of development." He called the plan a "highly inappropriate use of this land."
In a February letter to township officials that strongly opposed the plan, the Watershed Association said the amount of "earth disturbance, deforestation and stormwater runoff" from the plan "will significantly jeopardize the water quality of the Swiftwater and Pocono Creeks."
"What is the richness of the Poconos about if it's not trees and streams," resident Maria Bras-Danges said.
Apex’s Hammond said a lot of the issues raised by speakers are addressed in the preliminary plan, and disputed opponents' size projections.
Hammond said the site will have "a vegetative buffer" up to 200 feet deep around it, and developers will plant deep-root vegetation on the fields where the solar panels are erected.
It also will construct multiple retention ponds to stop any erosion or heavy runoff from the project.
Hammond also said the project has many revenue benefits for the township, including $250,000 a year in property taxes for the 40 years of its expected life. It would create 230 full-time-equivalent jobs during its expected eight- to 12-month construction.
"We plan to be the neighbors you don't notice, but who are huge taxpayers," he said.
He also said the company will set up a bond for an amount to be determined by an engineer to decommission the site after its use.
Township officials have said developers have satisfied the township's zoning and planning requirements, including a list 170 points of concern about zoning, subdivision, land development, stormwater management, stormwater sewer designs and more that officials set forth.
Hammond said construction hopefully would start later this summer.