A Clifton Park citizen’s group pressed the town board Tuesday to require future solar developers in the town pass a higher threshold in showing a public benefit and, in some cases, pay into a conservation fund in the planning process of their projects.
Susan Burton, a Friends of Clifton Park Open Space officer, urged that new proposed regulations for solar projects in the town should require developers to demonstrate benefits to the community and seek to protect the open, agricultural character of the western, less developed part of town. Burton and other members of the open space group argued that years of effort to retain the character and open space in that part of town should not be undone by a major expansion of solar projects taking advantage of that open space.
“As early as August 2019, Friends expressed our apprehension about how the protection of open space – especially in the western conservation residential zone – has had the unexpected consequence of providing virgin territory for the proliferation of solar facilities,” Burton said during a public hearing on proposed regulations.
A moratorium on new ground-mounted solar projects has been in place in the town for nearly nine months, responding to rising community concerns about how large solar projects could be developed in the town’s rural areas and within areas zoned for residential development. Town officials also sought to update their solar rules, which were last adopted in 2011, in light of growing demand for solar projects and updated state laws.
“There continues to be a tremendous amount of public money subsidizing green energy projects throughout the state, so we expect, have expected and continue to expect the pressure of green energy projects in local communities to increase over time,” Clifton Park Town Supervisor Phil Barrett said.
The proposed regulations develop a three-tier system outlining the rules for new solar energy systems within the town: roof-mounted solar panels and systems integrated into a single building; ground-mounted systems with capacity up to 25 kilowatt-hour that only produces roughly the amount of energy consumed at that site; and other large ground-mounted systems up to the size that still falls under town jurisdiction.
The six major solar arrays approved and operating in the town already have been largely concentrated in the western part of town, providing large landowners an opportunity to lease parts of the property to the solar developers.
“They are concentrated in western Clifton Park, because that’s where the large tracts of space are available,” John Scavo, director of planning, said during the hearing.
The proposed regulations would also enable solar projects in the town’s industrial zone, concentrated in the northeastern corner of the town, as well as other commercial areas, which could ease development pressure on other parts of town, Scavo said.
“Modifications are being made to the town’s zoning law to provide a wider range of solar development opportunities,” according to an analysis by town officials. “These opportunities in other zoning districts may have the effect of alleviating solar development pressures from our existing conservation residential zoning district.”
The larger ground-mounted projects would be subject to special use permits, giving the town planning board the chance to review proposed projects along a range of factors. The projects “shall have views minimized from public roadways and adjacent properties” by using architectural features, earth berms, landscaping and other screening methods. The largest projects, those considered tier three, would also need to conduct an assessment of the visual impacts the solar system would have on roads and adjacent properties.
The larger systems must also account for agricultural land considered “prime” or of “statewide importance” under state and federal guidelines. Projects located on areas that consist of the prime farmland “shall to the maximum extent practicable avoid disturbance of these most valuable/productive farmland soils,” according to the proposed rules.
The proposed regulations would also require project developers to submit plans for how to decommission the solar project after it’s no longer in operation, as well as include a bond that would cover the cost of decommissioning at the time of the plan approval. The plans must outline the cost of removing the solar system, the time required to do so, and the time required to “repair any damage caused to the property by the installation and removal of the solar energy system.”
Barrett noted that solar projects wouldn’t necessarily trigger all of the requirements of typical residential developments because they don’t bring the same impacts on sewer and water needs and increased traffic. He and Scavo also noted that the existing solar arrays, some of which are as big as 20 or 30 acres, do not encompass the entire property they are developed on. One existing solar project, for instance, covers about 20 acres of a property well over 100 acres.
But members of Friends of Clifton Park Open Space argued that solar developers converting land in the town’s conservation residential district should be required to pay into a fund that could be used to conserve and protect open space in other parts of town. The members of the group proposed assessing a fee relative to the actual size of a solar array within that particular zone that would be used in other conservation efforts.
“To say that solar panels don’t have traditional impacts is probably true but what about the impact of a piece of land is forest and agriculture, and it’s completely covered by this new land use called solar panels,” said James Ruhl, also an officer with the open space organization. “How can we get a piece of the action for open space, and that’s what we are talking about here, we want to be paid to restore some of the open space that that solar array consumed.”