Amsterdam Town Board waits for county review before solar law update

Town Engineer Kevin Schwenzfeier points to the commercial and industrial zoning districts in the town of Amsterdam where solar projects would continue to be allowed if a proposed local law is approved by the Town Board.

Town Engineer Kevin Schwenzfeier points to the commercial and industrial zoning districts in the town of Amsterdam where solar projects would continue to be allowed if a proposed local law is approved by the Town Board.

TOWN OF AMSTERDAM — The Town Board will hold a special meeting early next month to finally act on a proposed local law that would tighten up zoning regulations related to utility-scale solar projects.

The Town Board was unable to act on the local law to amend town zoning regulations during its regular meeting on Wednesday as the legislation must first be referred to the Montgomery County Planning Board. The county will review the local law during its regular meeting tonight.

A moratorium on new solar projects adopted by the town and later extended to provide officials time to review and update existing zoning regulations is set to expire on Sept. 12. The Town Board on Wednesday set a special meeting for Sept. 8 at 6 p.m. to move on the proposed amendments before the moratorium ends.

Officials have been eyeing an update to regulations related to solar projects since March when the Planning Board was tasked with performing a comprehensive review of existing regulations and issuing recommendations to the Town Board. The Planning Board returned draft zoning amendments that the Town Board is preparing to enact with the proposed local law.

Members of the Town Board have pointed to the revisions as necessary to protect the town from regulations that currently permit utility-scale solar projects in every zoning district in the town with minimal restrictions.

The proposed zoning amendments would limit utility-scale solar projects to the B-1 and B-2 commercial districts and M-1 mixed-use manufacturing district subject to special use permit and site plan approval. The proposal would disallow utility-scale solar projects in all other zoning districts, including residential and agricultural areas.

The zoning amendments would maintain setback requirements of 100 feet from all parcel boundary lines and extend those provisions to wetlands, ponds and streams. The proposal would also limit lot coverage of solar systems to 50% of the site and would limit systems to a maximum of 5 megawatts of generated power. A minimum lot size of 20 acres would be required.

Other protections would be implemented through the institution of height limits of 20 feet for solar arrays and 15 feet for accessory structures and considerations for topography and other screening measures to reduce visibility for surrounding properties.

Residents have been urging the Town Board for months to protect the rural community from the increasing interest of solar developers by banning projects from residential zones. Local residents on Wednesday repeated those calls during a public hearing on the local law.

“There is a place for solar, I personally am an environmentalist and do believe that we do need green energy,” Deborah Slezak said. “I think that the town’s updated legislation is reasonable.”

Slezak described the local law as balancing the interests of the residents who value green space and open space with protection of the environment by allowing solar projects in already developed areas.

Residents have become fearful of the possible impacts to their homes from solar projects on neighboring properties, said Melanie Coman, expressing appreciation and support for the proposed local law. The solar moratorium prevented a developer from submitting plans for a solar project on over 50 acres of land off of Truax Road that would have abutted Coman’s home.

“We have a lovely property in a residential zoned area. The farmer next to us is also in a residentially zoned area and wants to put 24,000 solar panels 100 feet from our home. You give them an inch, they take a mile. This county is being bombarded by companies all over the country,” Coman said.

Although the board has regularly heard from residents throughout the year broadly asking for solar projects to be banned from residential zones, several residents spoke out against the proposal on Wednesday as overly restrictive.

Some residential properties would provide ideal locations for solar projects, according to John Knickerbocker. He said plans by his family to install a solar project on Knickerbocker Road would help generate clean, low cost energy from a site that would not be visible to neighbors. The local law would prevent those plans from moving forward.

“It would be a good use of a portion of this property,” Knickerbocker said. “I understand neighbors that might have concerns if a solar system was put next to them in view of their house.”

In addition to providing an important renewable energy source for the planet, Jeff Leon said allowing solar projects in residential and agricultural areas would actually help protect the town from over-development. He said existing regulations that require just 200 feet of frontage for new home construction have led to the gradual erosion of the rural town.

“Every one of our country roads is beginning to disappear,” Leon said. “A lot of farmland is standing unused, unproductive, some farmers are aging out, maybe they don’t want to work as hard and this is a way to have that land be protected from over development. Once there is a subdivision on it, it is never going to be green again. Solar panels can be easily removed.”

Town Engineer Kevin Schwenzfeier noted to property owners concerned about restrictions that they could seek relief from the regulations by applying to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a variance from the zoning regulations. Obtaining a variance typically requires property owners to demonstrate that complying with zoning regulations poses a hardship.

“These aren’t completely restricting this, it’s just that the town feels that they want to protect what they felt this town is about,” Schwenzfeier said. “When you look and you see that it’s 80% residentially zoned, they felt that was where the true value of your community was.”

The Town Board will take final action on the proposed local law to tighten zoning regulations related to solar projects during the special meeting on Sept. 8.

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