Montgomery County

Solar project proposed in Glen eyed to help state meet energy goals

Ken Coyne stands in his apple orchard where a solar field is proposed in an open field behind him in the town of Glen on Thursday, August 5, 2021.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Ken Coyne stands in his apple orchard where a solar field is proposed in an open field behind him in the town of Glen on Thursday, August 5, 2021.

GLEN — Town residents broadly support the expansion of renewable energy and agree that climate change poses a global threat. Even the thriving Amish community within the small town does not oppose the construction of alternative energy projects. Yet, there is a growing alarm locally over a proposed large-scale solar project that would span around 2,000 acres of land.

The 250 megawatt Mill Point Solar Project proposed for construction in the town by ConnectGen was announced by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority in 2020 as one of 21 large-scale solar projects selected statewide to help meet New York’s goal of sourcing 70% of the state’s power from renewable energy sources by 2030.

The proposed project would be sited on about 2,000 acres of land in areas of the town stretching from Route 5S to Logtown Road. The space would account for setback and buffer requirements to separate the project area from other properties while accommodating the solar arrays and related infrastructure. ConnectGen has not yet publicly identified specific sites eyed for the project.

The 250-megawatt project would be capable of powering over 65,000 homes across the state. The town of Glen is home to roughly 2,700 residents and around 20% of those individuals are members of the Amish community who do not use electricity.

“Why are we asking a town of 2,700 to supply energy for 65,000 homes? That’s maybe 450,000 people, that’s pretty wild,” said Steve Helmin, co-chair of Glen Families Allied for Responsible Management of Land.

GlenFARMLand was formed by local residents organizing in opposition to the Mill Point Solar Project due in part to its scale and the state permitting process the project will go through that will take the decision out of local hands.

“Climate change is real, we need to find good ways to create energy that do not hurt the environment, however this project is so huge that it will impact the character of our community and environment in a negative way for generations,” Helmin said. “It’s the size of this thing that makes it so egregious.”

ConnectGen Project Manager Eddie Barry is hopeful community members will keep an open mind as the project progresses through the design phase and project plans are firmed up with input from residents. The solar developer will hold a pair of open house meetings on Wednesday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. at Eion’s Hideaway Pavilion where ConnectGen staff will present more project details, answer questions and accept feedback.

Project representatives have previously sat in on local meetings where residents have voiced concerns over the proposal to their elected leaders, including at last month’s Town Board meeting. ConnectGen also hosted a virtual open house online in April due to the pandemic. Early details on the project were outlined and residents could submit questions.

COMMUNITY INPUT

Barry said the upcoming open house meetings will provide an opportunity for project representatives to speak face-to-face with residents and engage in open dialogue about the proposal that will inform plans. The sessions will also provide a project overview and more specific details on locations that might host solar arrays.

“The project is not going to be all consolidated in one single block,” Barry noted.

Although still preliminary, Barry said the project will be spread out across several sites that will help limit sight impacts. ConnectGen will be conducting a visual analysis as the planning to determine where the project will be visible from based on existing vegetation and topography.

Those details will be used to develop screening measures that will be presented during a future open house to allow residents to provide feedback before the final application for the project is submitted to the state. ConnectGen currently plans to submit its formal application during the fourth quarter of this year, which will start a one-year time limit for a final decision.

THE STATE

The Mill Point Solar Project is subject to Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act that was approved last year as part of the state budget under Section 94-C of state executive law. The legislation includes provisions to speed up the approval process for large-scale solar projects of 25 megawatts or larger. Final determinations on projects are made by the state Office of Renewable Energy Siting.

The fact that the project will go through state approval, instead of being a local decision, is another concern for residents. As is the timing and method under which the state launched the process.

“When most of us were focused on COVID and watching the governor’s daily press conferences, not many of us were thinking about the state budget and it would not have occurred to me that anything as important as 94-C would be done in the state budget,” Ilene Wagner said. “I think there was not enough transparency. People working in the field were probably aware of it and provided comment, but for the average person it was brand new.”

The approval caught Wagner, who is well versed in planning issues, by surprise. After studying urban planning, Wagner embarked on a career that saw her working on projects that underwent various levels of environmental reviews.

“I have a lot of experience in land use issues and the review process,” Wagner said. “When I learned the state’s environmental review process did not apply to it and that local government was being bypassed, that was shocking to me. Municipal home rule is part of the New York state constitution that was adopted in the 1970s. Land use regulations and land use issues have always been historically a responsibility of local governments in New York.”

Wagner moved to the town from New York City in the 1980s looking for a change in scenery. She lives in a former schoolhouse dating back to the late 19th century and loves the rural character of her adopted hometown.

“Glen in my opinion is one of the most beautiful scenic towns in the Mohawk Valley and one of the most beautiful in New York state,” Wagner said.

She has put her professional expertise to use locally in the past while serving on the Planning Board and noted that projects undergoing local reviews are typically revised or redesigned at the direction of local officials and based on the feedback provided by residents.

“The fact that a huge solar facility of 2,000 acres or more is not going through that process is stunning to me,” Wagner said. “I consider myself an environmentalist. I believe in climate change, it’s a real thing and I support renewable energy. But I cannot say that I support these huge industrial facilities that are being proposed and I’m very unhappy about the way the state went about it.”

Many individuals and entities share similar concerns. The towns of Copake, Cambria, Farmersville, Malone, Somerset and Yates have filed a lawsuit along with the American Bird Conservancy, Save Ontario Shores, Cambria Opposition to Industrial Solar, Clear Skies Above Barre, Delaware-Otsego Audubon Society, Genesee Valley Audubon Society and Rochester Birding Association in state Supreme Court in Albany County.

The lawsuit filed in June names the state Office of Renewable Energy Siting and Acting Director Houtan Moaveni, the state Department of State and New York state as defendants. The suit alleges the creation of the Office of Renewable Energy Siting and its regulations violate the State Environmental Quality Review Act, the state Administrative Procedure Act and municipal home rule law. The plaintiffs are seeking to have the new state siting process overturned and the former process through the state Board on Electric Generation Siting reinstated.

While the fate of that recently filed lawsuit is unclear, Planning Board Chair Tim Reilly is pushing the town to tighten up its zoning regulations to protect Glen from large-scale solar projects.

PROPOSED MORATORIUM

In a letter to the Town Board last month, Reilly urged officials to adopt a local law enacting a temporary moratorium on all utility-scale solar projects to give the town time to review and amend the existing zoning regulations. The Town Board will conduct a public hearing on the proposed moratorium on Monday at 6:45 p.m.

“This industrial size solar, we really don’t address it in our zoning, we don’t address it in our comprehensive plan and we don’t address it in our land use management plan,” Reilly said.

Reilly is hopeful the moratorium will be enacted and that the Town Board and Planning Board will work together to perform a comprehensive review of local laws and long-term plans to come up with policies that protect the town from large-scale solar projects.

“We’re certainly not opposed to renewable energies, but we are opposed to some of these massive proposals that are coming forward. I would look at where do we site these, do we have a special zone for these, do we increase our setbacks, what do we do,” Reilly said.

With the submission of the application for the Mill Point Solar Project on the horizon later this year, Reilly said that time is of the essence to draft and adopt zoning amendments.

“We need to be sure that any regulation and anything that protects this town is in place prior to the siting of this,” Reilly said.

For his part, Reilly would like to see the town cap the amount of solar projects allowed in the town at a combined energy generation level of around 20 megawatts supplying power levels that would not exceed the amount of energy used by local residents. This would allow for a reasonable amount of solar development that would protect historically agricultural lands, Reilly argued.

“You’re having to use up viable land for generating power that I think can be gotten elsewhere,” Reilly said of recent solar proposals. “I would like to limit it to what can be used in a reasonable range in the community.”

The adoption of a temporary moratorium on new solar projects and any amendments to local zoning laws might not impact large-scale solar projects of 25 megawatts or larger that are subject to the approval of the Office of Renewable Energy Siting. The application and review process allows projects to supersede local laws that are deemed “unreasonably burdensome” to meeting the state’s renewable energy goals.

The Office of Renewable Energy Citing earlier this year adopted regulations, uniform conditions and standards for large-scale solar projects that developers must adhere to, which effectively removes these elements from the public discourse as proposals are reviewed. Projects are still subject to discussions related to site-specific conditions.

Reilly acknowledged the Mill Point Solar Project and other solar projects proposed in the town could supersede any actions taken by the town to tighten up zoning regulations, but said it was the duty of local officials to take those steps nonetheless in an attempt to protect the town.

“It’s an undue burden on this town to be a host to that size of a solar power plant when certainly the people of this town will never realize an ounce of the electricity from that project,” Reilly said. “Towns have obligations to the people … What is our vision, what do we see this town being and if we’re not going to stick to that, then we’re failing our duties as officials.”

ConnectGen is developing plans for the Mill Point Solar Project in compliance with existing zoning regulations, according to Barry, who acknowledged any amendments adopted by the town could impact plans for the project to some extent.

“We obviously have to be prepared for potential changes in that local solar law that could impact the design of that project,” Barry said. “Right now we’re designing it with full compliance with existing local solar law and have to be aware of those potential changes and how they might affect our project.”

Glen was selected for the project in part due to the presence of transmission lines where the project could connect with the power grid, the availability of land suitable to host the project and the interest of landowners. Those components play an important role in determining the size of the project, Barry said, which is how the 250 megawatt proposal was developed for submission to NYSERDA’s annual solicitation for large-scale renewable energy projects.

SELECTION PROCESS

NYSERDA President and CEO Doreen Harris said that projects are selected based on a competitive scoring system that ranks the projects 70% based on cost and 30% based on non-price components. Those elements include the viability of the project, benefits of the project to the state’s energy goals, potential economic benefits, the compliance of plans with local laws, the sentiments of residents, project layout and environmental impacts.

“Responsible development is critical for us, just as it is for the host community,” Harris said.

The state seeks to control the potential of solar projects to disrupt land by avoiding areas that require widespread tree removal or that would remove the state’s “prime” agricultural land from production, according to Harris. Projects that maximize the use of land for its original intent are also preferred.

In the case of the Mill Point Solar Project, the availability of large tracts of naturally flat land contributed to the favorability of the project. The large scale was viewed as another attribute that will reduce the cost of the power generated by the project that can be reliably connected to the state power grid.

The 250 megawatts of power the project would generate is nearly four times the amount of power consumed in Montgomery County and that would assist the state as it pursues its energy goals, Harris said.

“It’s a significant project in scale and in impact,” Harris said. “It is an asset to renewable energy developed to find a community like Glen that can host a project of this scale.”

The selection of a project by NYSERDA does not guarantee approval from the Office of Renewable Energy Citing. NYSERDA is not involved in that process. Harris acknowledged the construction of large-scale solar projects in communities can lead to concerns from residents, but said the guidelines for projects instituted by the state protect localities and support important expansion of renewable energy to combat climate change.

“These projects are a change, but part of a critical change the state is leading,” Harris said. “We have a strong commitment to cleaning our grid and addressing climate change.”

FARMING COMMUNITY

Residents are fearful the change in Glen would forever alter the character of the historically agricultural town that recovered once before from the decline of the dairy industry.

Bellinger’s Orchard was primarily a dairy farm before the second-generation owner of the family farm, Tom Bellinger, planted apple trees as a side operation. Son-in-law Ken Coyne got involved in managing the orchard in 1993 while continuing to work a full-time job as a programmer for an insurance company.

“During the week I‘m a programmer, during the weekend I’m a farmer. One side is using my mind, the other side is using my mind and my hands,” Coyne said.

Originally from West Sand Lake in Rensselaer County, Coyne recalls living next door to a gradually declining dairy farm growing up in the rural community. Those memories made the decision to join his father-in-law running Bellinger’s Orchard an easy one to ensure the farm would remain alive.

“Over the years I saw that dairy farm disappear,” Coyne said. “That always bothered me.”

Bellinger’s Orchard is now thriving and has expanded over the years. The orchard features nine acres of apples, an acre of cherries and an acre of peaches. During the fall, the orchard is a prime destination for fresh donuts, pumpkins, hayrides and wandering through a corn maze.

There is ample room on the roughly 300 acre farm to continue expanding the operation, but Coyne worries the solar project proposed in the town could hurt his business by covering the scenic views visitors to the orchard enjoy in a sea of black solar panels.

“I am for solar, but not at this scale,” Coyne said.

When he first heard about the project, Coyne said it sounded like a great way to obtain a little financial security for farmers who face fluctuations in prices by leasing a small portion of their land for the installation of solar panels. He thought at most farmers would be leasing 30 acres of land, not hundreds.

“If people were talking about 30 acres here and there, nobody would have a problem, but the mass of 2,500 acres is just too much,” Coyne said.

Still, it was not an easy decision to turn down the offer from ConnectGen to lease a portion of his family’s farm out for the project and a payday that would have allowed him to retire from both of his jobs.

“Sometimes I feel like a fool. I am walking away from a huge carrot and that’s based on the principle of me wanting to keep this farmland,” Coyne said. “The one thing that does bother me about this project is it’s unfortunately pitting people involved against their neighbors. It’s not how I thought things would fall out.”

“It’s an emotional thing,” he added.

THE AMISH COMMUNITY

Members of the Amish community understand the reasoning of their neighbors who have accepted offers from ConnectGen, especially aging farmers who will be afforded the opportunity to relax. But the majority of the more than 77 families agree they will leave the area and the state if the project is built.

“The whole community does not want to see that,” said an Amish farmer speaking on the condition his name not be used due to the cultural value of humility.

Amish families first moved to the town in 2005 growing from 12 families initially to an estimated 77 families and 525 individuals by 2019. Many families are originally from Ohio, including the farmer, who said he moved to the town after traveling through the area and seeing the quality of the corn growing on the fertile land.

“I like to see that kind of agriculture. It makes the land look pretty and God created that,” he said.

Farming is a pillar of Amish life with families growing crops or raising animals to support themselves and often selling goods through small scale operations like roadside stands or large operations that can see goods distributed across the state.

Many families operate secondary businesses producing a variety of handcrafted goods including furniture, construction materials, sheds, gazebos, metal roofing, wooden toys, candy, maple syrup, cheese and more. These businesses serve the Amish and non-Amish populations alike. Shops in the town of Glen attract customers from hundreds of miles away and goods can be shipped even further.

The Amish community does not object to the construction of solar projects in general, but the farmer said he would prefer to see them built in areas where crops can’t be grown.

“I would have no problem with it if it were out in the desert,” he said with a smile.

Despite the reliance of the community on agriculture, the farmer said he would prefer to compete with a big farm operation covering the same amount of land than see the space covered with solar panels. Aside from the concerns about the view of the solar panels, the large-scale project would take up otherwise useful farmland, meaning it would be unavailable to future generations of Amish farmers who already have rapidly growing families.

Residents are concerned about the future of their town if the Amish who helped revitalize the area leave due to the proposed project. Before the arrival of the Amish community, Wagner recalls the town was in decline and large swaths of farmland were lying fallow as farmers retired without a next generation to take over or the farm simply failed.

Speculators began buying up available farmland for subdivision and development, threatening the character of the town that had more relaxed zoning regulations at the time.

“There was a lot of concern when that started,” Wagner said. “Then the Amish moved in and that started to change.”

The locally produced goods have contributed a huge boost to the economy and support other businesses like Bellinger’s Orchard. Coyne said visitors seeking Amish goods and tourists hoping to spot a horse and buggy out on the road often stop by his orchard during the course of their trip.

“They are good neighbors, I’ve hired them to repair barns for me and they help me out when I need help,” Coyne added.

Despite the historic prevalence of the agriculture industry in the town, Wagner said farmers in the past typically shipped their products out of the area and locally produced goods were hard to come by. Now, there is an abundance of fresh local produce and goods available seasonably throughout the town. And she has appreciated the opportunity to get to know her Amish neighbors over the years.

“I appreciate having neighbors who I interact with every day,” Wagner said.

In the town composed of about 25,000 acres of land, the Amish community owns an estimated 4,151 across 88 parcels. Town records do not distinguish which properties are owned by the Amish, but Assessor Stella Gittle was able to come up with the estimates looking through the assessment rolls because she too knows her neighbors.

The Amish community makes up a large share of the town’s tax base, paying an estimated $289,767 in taxes for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

“They’re paying about $1 out of every $16 of taxes that comes into the school, county and town. It’s a larger community than what people realize,” Gittle said. “They’ve contributed quite a bit to the economy of Glen.”

If members of the community decide to uproot, the Amish farmer indicated that most families plan to put their land up for sale.

ConnectGen’s preliminary project plans, according to Barry, by and large do not call for solar panels to be installed on parcels adjacent to properties owned by Amish families.

THE PLAN

“Viewsheds from their residences are likely to be very, very minimal and I would say that we welcome their feedback with regard to how we might develop this project in a way that doesn’t discourage them from remaining in the community,” Barry said.

He additionally pointed to the project as providing benefits to the community in the form of tax revenue, construction jobs, utility credits to residents and payments to landowners who participate in the project.

“The landowners who are participating in this project have also been members of the community for quite a long time and many of them have worked this land and are looking to in a sense have the land work for them now,” Barry said.

“It’s important that in the way that we all want to be respectful of each other’s way of life, we should be respectful of neighbors’ rights to use land in a way that is permissible under local zoning, climate responsible and in a way that does not present a harm or hazard to the community given solar is very passive and safe electrical generation,” he added.

The land used for the project would not be forever changed, Barry noted. ConnectGen would be required to develop a decommissioning plan as part of the state approval process and to secure a bond to cover the cost of removing the project to be held by the town.

Decommissioning would involve the full removal of all equipment for recycling and the restoration of the land to its original condition. Some residents are not convinced it would be possible for the town to return to its current state if the project moves forward.

“I don’t believe the land will ever be brought back to agriculture once these facilities get installed,” Wagner said. “I don’t think in 30 or 40 years you would have the people here to do the farming.”

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