GLEN — The Town Board approved a six-month moratorium on new utility-scale solar projects by a vote of 3-1 on Monday.
The vote came after a lengthy public hearing, where some residents back the moratorium, while others spoke against it.
The local law enacting the solar moratorium was sought by officials and some residents to provide the town time to review and amend existing zoning regulations with an eye toward tightening standards for projects of 25-megawatts or larger. Locals have pointed to existing laws as insufficient to address large-scale solar projects and pushed for urgent action looking ahead to a proposal from ConnectGen that is expected to be submitted to the state in the fourth quarter.
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 across the state to help meet New York’s goal of sourcing 70% of the state’s power from renewable energy sources by 2030.
The project would span approximately 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. The project would be capable of supplying power to approximately 65,000 homes.
The project is subject to the 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, with final determinations on projects made by the state Office of Renewable Energy Siting.
The Office of Renewable Energy Siting earlier this year adopted regulations, uniform conditions and standards for large-scale solar projects that developers must follow, which effectively removed these elements from the public discourse as proposals are reviewed. The process allows projects to supersede local laws that are deemed “unreasonably burdensome” to meeting the state’s renewable energy goals.
Planning Board Chair Tim Reilly urged the Town Board to adopt a local law enacting a temporary moratorium on all utility-scale solar projects in a letter last month to allow officials time to review and amend zoning regulations. He renewed that call while appearing before the board during the public hearing on the local law on Monday.
“The biggest issue here is land management,” Reilly said. “We have to look at where are we going with the land and what is our future going to look like.”
The town’s comprehensive plan lists preserving and enhancing the town’s farming operations and agricultural lands, preserving the natural environment, preserving the town’s rural character and open spaces and maintaining and enhancing the aesthetics of the town as goals. Zoning regulations are meant to be aligned with those goals, including provisions governing the local approval of solar projects, officials said.
Existing regulations limit lot coverage of solar projects to 20% of a parcel with setback requirements of 100 feet from the front and rear and 50 feet from the sides of residential properties and 50 feet from the front and 25 feet from the side and rear of industrial and commercial properties.
The town’s zoning laws stipulate that a visual analysis must be completed to determine sight lines and develop screening measures. Decisions on sufficient screening, as well as the removal of trees, access roads and the level of land restoration required during project decommissioning are up to the final discretion of the Planning Board as part of the site plan approval process. Those decisions would be removed from the hands of local officials under the state siting process.
The Mill Point Solar Project to date has been developed in compliance with existing town regulations, according to Project Manager Eddie Barry. Although large-scale solar projects going through the state process may supersede local laws, Reilly pointed to the importance of fully defining the town’s regulations and making any desired updates to zoning regulations to have those details on the books.
“You’re going to have people making decisions for this town who don’t even live here, they probably don’t even come around to Montgomery County let alone the town of Glen,” Reilly said. “I think it’s important that we do look at this and strive to have the best outcome that we can.”
Planning Board members Susan Whiteman, Secretary Sandra Hemstreet and Vice Chair Rosalie Farina also participated in the public hearing to urge the Town Board to enact the solar moratorium.
“We do not have an appropriate solar law that will protect our town from the abuses of utility-solar,” Whiteman said. “Allow us a moratorium so we can study and put in place appropriate rules and regulations.”
Residents in recent months have broadly criticized the proposal and state approval process over concerns that the massive project will destroy scenic views, occupy a large amount of potential farmland, drive out the town’s Amish population, and forever alter the character of the rural town.
Locals sharing those worries organized Glen Families Allied for Responsible Management of Land or GlenFARMLand in opposition to the project and collected 502 signatures from locals on a petition against the project that was presented to the Town Board last month.
While the majority of the speakers during the nearly hour-long public hearing shared fears about the ConnectGen proposal and voiced support for the moratorium, town officials also heard from several residents who support the project and spoke out against the solar moratorium.
After owning farmland in the town since the 1970s, Andrea Hauser said getting crops off the fields with her husband has become more difficult than ever before as the pair have grown older and each overcome health challenges.
They worked alone in the fields in the recent heat and humidity trying to beat the rain and hoping their equipment would not fail. Dairy farmers have faced even larger challenges in the past year and have been forced to simply dump thousands of dollars worth of milk that could not sell while continuing to feed their herds, Hauser said.
With the challenges of farming mounting, Hauser said she and her husband were looking to the future when they made the decision to participate in the ConnectGen project. She added that the developer has performed ample due diligence on her property to ensure the land and wildlife would be protected.
“Parents naturally want life to be better for themselves, their children and their grandchildren. I am sure your parents before you that owned farms would have wanted the best for you, too. ConnectGen is that opportunity for us,” Hauser said. “I hope the Town Board is willing to be progressive thinking for the future generations of the town and continue with the ConnectGen project.”
Dairy farmer Dennis Egelston is not participating in the project but called on the town to ensure farmers have the right to make their own decisions about how best to use their property and to consider the potential impact of the moratorium on participating landowners.
“Don’t handcuff the people that have been here that choose to make their income in another way. I don’t feel that’s fair, I don’t think it’s right and I am definitely dead set against someone telling me how I should run my operation,” Egelston said.
Resident Robert Yurkewecz is another project participant who signed on to help combat climate change keeping in mind the environmental conditions his grandchildren may face in the future.
“Everybody talks about today,” Yurkewecz said. “My grandchildren, I want them to have a planet to be on. You want to kill the project? Think about your grandchildren, it’s not just going to be mine.”
Representatives of the New York State Laborers’ Union were also in attendance to show their support for the project they argue would provide “good jobs” to some of its 44,000 members statewide.
“The jobs created by this project, ConnectGen has made a commitment that these would be good family-sustaining construction jobs, that these are good jobs for construction workers, including members right here that we represent and we ask that be taken into consideration,” said Harrison Watkins, a union representative.
After hearing from around 16 residents in the packed meeting room, the Town Board ultimately approved the local law instituting the six-month solar moratorium by a vote of 3-1. Town Supervisor John Thomas supplied the lone vote against the local law. Councilman Larry Coddington was absent.
“It’s not against solar, it’s not a ban on solar,” Councilman Russell Kelly, Jr. said before the vote. “It could make it so it’s a little less impactive and there is a little more community input on the whole thing. I think we need to move forward with this and get behind our Planning Board and work with them and get involved and move forward.”
Councilman Ronald Crewell did not make any remarks before voting but was wearing a GLENFarmland sticker.
Following the meeting, Thomas explained that he voted against the measure since he felt the local law was unnecessary to accomplish the goals sought by officials and residents.
“There are tools in place, I just don’t think we need another local law to make this happen,” Thomas said.
The adopted solar moratorium will extend into February and will not apply to already approved projects. The Planning Board is expected to develop recommended amendments to zoning regulations for possible adoption by the Town Board.
The adoption of the temporary moratorium and any amendments to local zoning laws might not impact the Mill Point Solar Project or any large-scale solar projects of 25 megawatts or larger that are subject to the approval of the Office of Renewable Energy Siting. Barry has stated that ConnectGen will remain aware of any potential changes and how they may impact the project.
ConnectGen will hold a pair of open house meetings today from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. at Eion’s Hideaway Pavilion where project representatives will present additional details on the project, answer questions and accept feedback.