Proposed solar project in Gloversville seeks zoning variance

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GLOVERSVILLE — Solar developers Eden Renewables on Wednesday asked the city Zoning Board of Appeals to grant a “Public Utility Variance” to allow the company to build a proposed $10 million 32-acre 7.5-megawatt solar farm on the site of the former Pine Brook Golf Club.

The location of the property is 280 South Main St., located in a neighborhood zoned for residential use.

During the meeting, ZBA Chairman Jeffrey Ashe, of 22 Wheaton Ave., recused himself because he lives adjacent to the property. Acting ZBA chairman David Esler, of 43 Oakland Ave., led the board in tabling the matter, claiming members had only received Eden Renewables’ application at the end of last week and needed more time to consider the company’s arguments for why the project should be granted a Public Utility Variance.

Eden Renewables application is different from the typical zoning use variances considered by the Gloversville ZBA. Normally to get a zoning use variance, an applicant must prove an “unnecessary hardship” to the property owner by showing the applicant can’t achieve a reasonable rate of return from owning the property under the current zoning restrictions. Applicants have to show the hardship relating to the property is unique, granting the use variance wouldn’t change the essential character of the neighborhood and the alleged hardship was not self-created.

But Giovanni Maruca, the chief developer for Eden Renewables, said his company is arguing the use variance should be granted under the legal standard established in New York state case law for Public Utility Variances. Maruca said under New York state law electricity generating facilities are given “special dispensations” for where they can be built because they are already limited to choosing properties near electrical grid connections sufficient to accommodate the power generation.

“If there isn’t electrical infrastructure to interconnect with, you can’t do it, and there are only so many places around the state that you can actually make an interconnection — I’ve seen 200 hundred and 300 hundred acre parcels and there’s no ability to interconnect,” Maruca said.

The 280 South Main St. property is near what solar developers call “good grid,” power line interconnections that allow for distribution of generated electricity, low voltage sub-transmission of electricity or high voltage electrical transmission.

“So, it’s at a location that from an interconnection perspective you have three different options that can support small or medium size at the distribution level to medium size projects on the sub-transmission to really big stuff on the transmission side,” Maruca said.

Another element of Eden Renewables’ argument is New York state has mandated 6-gigawatts (GWs) of renewable energy generating capacity be installed into New York state’s electricity grid by 2025. One gigawatt of electricity is the equivalent of 1,000 megawatts.

“There aren’t a lot of places to do these projects, to do 6-gigawatts, you need about 30,000 to 35,000 acres of usable land, so that’s a lot of 7.5-megawatt projects, no one developer could do all of that,” he said. “The state is mandating you’ve got to put these projects together. You’ve got to find more than 800 community solar projects. It’s not a goal, it’s a law.”

Maruca said Eden Renewables has about 10 solar farm projects throughout New York state ready to be built this summer, adding up to about 75-megawatts of renewable power generation, and another 10 projects, including the one in Gloversville, in various stages of the local and state approval process. He said the 280 South Main St. property in Gloversville has been the most difficult project for local approvals of any of the solar farms in Eden Renewables’ portfolio.

“We must have gone in front of the city boards, from the city council to the city Planning Board, to the Zoning Board, probably somewhere between 10 and 15 times over the last two years,” he said. “The city has said they want it used for residential, but we’re still leaving behind 100 acres at this property, and in the past, the owners have even had talks with residential developers about five years ago, and the locations they wanted to build on were not where we’re planning to construct, so there’s plenty of room for both to exist, with plenty of woodland screening for where a residential project was discussed only a few years ago.”

During the three common council public hearings on the proposal there were a few speakers who voiced opposition to the idea of the solar farm, claiming they think it would be loud and bad for the residential neighborhood. John Synakowski, who lives near the project, objected to Eden Renewables’ proposal to use sheep to groom the grass around the solar farm, part of several nature-based features of the project along with having beehives, wildflowers, and a community garden.

Maruca said sheep aren’t allowed in the city anyway, so Eden Renewables has dropped that part of its concept. He said some of the critics are being unfair to the owners of the property.

“They’re trying to dictate to landowners what they can do with their land, and that’s really not the spirit of America really,” he said. “There are rules you have to follow, but the landowners have done a number of things in good faith, and the city boards just keep saying no.”

The city’s Planning Board only narrowly approved by a 3-2 vote in October for an application to subdivide the 155-acre parcel of the former Pine Brook Golf course into four parcels: a 57-acre plot in the center for the solar farm, a 2-acre parcel encompassing the former golf clubhouse, a 1.46-acre parcel to be combined with the neighboring Antonucci Foods property and a 91-acre parcel running along the perimeter of the existing property.

The subdivision vote was effectively held three times over a three-month period before the approval was finalized. The Planning Board voted 3-1 at its Aug. 4, 2020 meeting to approve the subdivision, but that vote was nullified due to a problem with the notice for the public hearing not being published in the Leader-Herald newspaper on time. Then the Planning Board deadlocked at 2-2 over the same issue on Sept. 1 when planning board member Matthew Donde flipped from having been a yes vote previously to voting no and planning board member Pete Semione was absent.

When Semione returned for the October meeting he voted in favor of the subdivision, allowing it to pass 3-2.
Maruca said the ZBA deciding to table Eden Renewables application for another month is another example of the many unfair delays the project has endured.

“We submitted our application on May 20, and we were more than 10 days out from the ZBA meeting, so we met the guidelines; we were within the rules, and we get to the meeting Wednesday night and the board says ‘we only saw these yesterday’,” he said. “And this is not the first time this has happened with the city of Gloversville, where we’ve submitted our stuff on time and then been delayed because they’ve said they hadn’t gotten the information until the day before. One-off you wouldn’t question, but having had it happen multiple times for this project, resulting in multiple delays, just seems a bit odd.”

A phone call made to David Esler Friday at the phone number listed for him at the web page indicated the number was no longer in service.

ZBA member Ronald Sutler on Friday said he received his copy of Eden Renewables application in the mail postmarked May 28 from Gloversville city hall. He said the standard operating procedure for Zoning Board of Appeals applications has been for the applicant to mail the information to city hall where city officials then copy the application and send it out to ZBA members.

“I received it on May 29, and I assume the other members received it about the same time I did,” Sutler said. “I have not had time to review the information in the packet. There are many pages, without sitting down and counting them, I would think it’s at least 50 pages to this document. There were two cases under consideration for that evening and we got both of them in the same packet, and we received it a couple of days prior to a holiday weekend, so none of us had time to review the information.”

Gloversville City Clerk Jennifer Mazur said applications for the ZBA and the Planning Board go to the Gloversville Fire Department secretary Tracy Gutowski, who also acts as the secretary for those boards. She said she is unaware of whether there are rules for when Gutowski is required to mail information to ZBA and Planning Board members.
Gutowski could not be reached for comment Friday.

Maruca said he is hopeful the Gloversville ZBA will rule on Eden Renewables’ application by its July 7 meeting. He said if the use variance is not granted his company could scale up the size of the project to a 20 to 25-megawatt peak solar farm eligible to take advantage of a new New York state law passed in 2020 called the “Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act,” which would bypass local regulatory board approvals.

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