Residents voice opposition to proposed solar farm site in Town of Florida

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Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News

TOWN OF FLORIDA — When Vijay Puran decided to move to the country, he had no idea the kind of power plants he helps regulate for New York state would be moving with him.

Puran is a utility supervisor at the New York State Department of Public Service who works on analysis and supervision of electric transmission lines and power generation siting, among other things. He’s also the leader and founder of a group of 21 people called “Citizens for Responsible Solar Farm Placement Panel,” which submitted testimony recently opposing the siting of the proposed NextEra Energy Resources High River Energy Center, a 90-megawatt solar energy project, the company wants to build on three adjacent vacant farmland parcels in the town

One of those vacant farmland parcels is right next to Puran’s house. He said he recused himself from the regulatory aspect of the High River Energy Center project at his job, so he would have permission to oppose it. His group, composed of 13 Town of Florida residents and eight Town of Amsterdam residents, submitted testimony in July as part of the Article 10 power plant siting process for the giant solar farm.

Solar projects with fewer than 25-megawatts of generating capacity are subject to local zoning laws and planning board restrictions, but the High River Energy Center is larger than that, and  will be approved or rejected using the Article 10 power plant siting law, passed in 2011, which enables a power plant Siting Board to override any local laws and approve construction.

Puran said his group is not opposed to solar power or renewable energy, but he thinks plants should be built in commercial areas, not prime farmland.

He acknowledges that the land next to his home has been vacant for 25 years, but that was part of why he bought his property, hoping the house he built would gain in value, enabling him to leave his accumulated wealth to his children. Now he’s concerned the site of the huge solar farm, and potentially glare from it, will diminish his property’s value.

“There’re a lot of people who have made decisions in their lives, based on the scenic view there, which is extremely beautiful, so they’re causing a lot of problems for those people,” Puran said. “I used to live in the Town of Colonie. I moved out here, built this house, for retirement, now they’re going to place this solar farm 200 feet from my property.”

Stephen Le Fevre, an engineer who works for Albany-based Barton & Loguidice, provided testimony on July 17 as part of the Article 10 process. Le Fevre was hired by the Town of Florida and also Puran’s citizens group to provide expert testimony to the Siting Board, arguing that the approximately $100 million project violates town laws and should either be rejected or modified.

Le Fevre said the High River Energy Center project violates element’s of the Town of Florida’s 2019 Solar Law, the town’s 1996 Comprehensive Plan, amended in 2011 and would negatively impact farming, the communities character and the “visual qualities of the town.”

Le Fevre acknowledged that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to stop a solar farm power project under Article 10, in part because Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act” contains within it the goal of New York state having 70% of its electrical power provided by renewable energy by 2030. But, he said he’s hopeful the Siting Board could order NextEra Energy Resources to modify its proposal to allow for larger setbacks.

“The thing with these projects is, the solar developers have to enter into lease agreements with private property owners, so it’s not like this property is being taken by eminent domain,” he said. “The only way it wouldn’t happen is if there were no landowners willing to lease the property. The solar developers have to abide by all of the New York state DEC requirements for wetlands, endangered species, and they have constraints in that they don’t want to clear a lot of land or deforest areas, because it’s too costly for them. The biggest factor is they need to be able to find a power line to the grid that has enough remaining capacity that they can tie into.”

The location of the High River Energy Center — which is on about 880 acres  near the New York State Thruway, west of the Schenectady County line, with property adjacent to Hutchinson, Severin, Mohr and Pattersonville roads — meets all of the criteria for good solar farm site, thanks to National Grid’s #12 Stoner-Rotterdam 115-kilovolt transmission line.

The available transmission line, plus abundance of vacant farm land, has made Montgomery County a nexus of solar projects, including the 90.5-megawatt Mohawk Solar Farm project in the towns of Minden and Canajoharie.

Le Fevre said the Mohawk Solar Farm project proves the Article 10 process can be used to address public concerns about solar farms.

“In the case of Mohawk Solar, the applicant ended up relocating some of the solar panels from concerns raised by the [New York state Department of Environmental Conservation] with regards to threatening endangered grassland species and where they might nest or roost,” he said. “The town of Florida Solar Law has a setback requirement of 500 feet, so that’s our hope.”

Florida Town Supervisor Eric Mead is more pessimistic.

“The Siting Board is going to have the final say,” Mead said. “Five of them are selected by either the governor or state officials and two of whom are selected by myself or the county executive, so do the math. Your hands are tied right from the get-go.”

Mead said the town government argued NextEra Energy Resources should have to pay for a study affected the impact of the project on adjacent property values, as well as provide more information about potential glare from the site, but were “shot down” on both proposals by the Siting Board and an administrative law judge overseeing the process.

 Mead said he believes the new “Article 23” process, passed in April as part of the 2020-21 state budget, will lead to more expedited renewable energy projects with even less local input. He said he’s not against solar energy, but he doesn’t like it to go on prime agricultural land. He said he understands why some farmers want to lease their land for solar farms though.

“If a dairy farmer is only turning $35 an acre, $50 if he’s lucky, and somebody comes in and flashes $2,000 an acre, who’s not going to say let’s talk?” Mead said. “Some will, some won’t. It all depends on the individual. I had it thrown in my face, but I threw them off the property, wanted nothing to do with it. I’d be lying to you if I said I don’t expect more solar projects to happen.”

NextEra Energy Resources has until Aug. 21 to file rebuttal testimony to the testimony provided by the Citizens for Responsible Solar Farm Placement Panel and Le Fevre.

Keddy Chandran, project director for NextEra Energy Resources, said his company will provide rebuttal testimony by the Aug. 21 deadline.

“Local concerns are very important to NextEra Energy Resources,” Chandran said. “In fact, the project has been redesigned twice to accommodate local concerns, allowing the project to have setbacks in some cases of over 500 feet from the road and over 500 feet from homes. We look forward to submitting our rebuttal testimony and continuing the conversation with the citizens group and the Town of Florida.”

The Article 10 process provides for a 1-year time limit for the application process, which, in the case of the High River Energy Center, started on March 13.

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