The massive solar energy farm Skidmore College is proposing off Denton Road is facing a legal challenge from a pair of neighboring property owners claiming town officials negotiated a half-million-dollar payment from the school out of public purview before giving the project its final approvals last month.
Horse farm owner Thomas Mina and Prestwick Chase — a senior living facility neighboring the site slated for the array — filed an Article 78 proceeding in state Supreme Court in Schenectady County last week, accusing former Greenfield town Supervisor Richard Rowland and Deputy Supervisor Daniel Pemrick of negotiating a $500,000 deal with Skidmore in exchange for a zoning change on the 120-acre property. The pair of land owners claim Rowland and Pemrick unlawfully secured the deal to create the so-called planned unit development district with the college while members of the town’s Planning Board were still mulling the project.
“Said negotiations were withheld from the public, but are evidenced in a series of email exchanges between representatives for Skidmore and said Greenfield town officials,” stated attorney Daniel Tuczinski in the 13-page legal challenge. “Said e-mails resulted in an agreement by which Skidmore College would pay the sum of $500,000 in exchange for approval of the planned unit development district, which would change the zoning applicable to the property.”
The legal action also questions whether the town properly determined “the true nature and extent” of Skidmore’s solar project before referring it to the Planning Board. Mina and Prestwick Chase claim the project is to benefit Dynamic Solar LLC, the for-profit foreign company contracted to install the 6,950 panels in the array, and is not an educational project benefiting Skidmore.
Current town Supervisor Paul Lunde hasn’t seen the legal challenge yet but was aware one could arise from the town’s approval of the contentious project in December. He said legal action likely would have arisen from the project even if it had been rejected by the town or one of its land-use boards.
“It’s not a surprise,” he said Wednesday. “It’s unfortunate but not surprising.”
Daniel Forbush, a spokesman for Skidmore, said college officials were served with the action Tuesday and are reviewing it now.
It wasn’t clear why the challenge was filed in Schenectady County. Attempts to reach Tuczinski were unsuccessful Wednesday.
Members of the Town Board adopted the special planned unit development for the project by a 4-1 vote, following months of discussion and debate. The array will cover eight acres of the property west of the main Skidmore campus in Saratoga Springs and be set back about 800 feet from Denton Road.
The photovoltaic system would generate about 2.6 million kilowatt hours of power per year, about 12 percent of the college’s usage.
The project is being aided by a $2.35 million grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. The array’s electricity will be piped back into the commercial power grid, and the college will get credits against its electric bill.
During negotiations, Skidmore agreed to leave the remaining 112 acres free from further development. The college also offered to make “development agreement” payments to the town totalling $500,000 over the next two decades.
Proponents of the project argued the payments would bring in revenue to the town where there wasn’t any before. Skidmore doesn’t pay taxes on the property.
But opponents of the development argued it will negatively impact the environment and is unsuitable for the bucolic area. They also questioned whether reflected sunlight from the array would warm Putnam Brook, a trout stream that needs to be cold for fish to spawn.
“In ... recommending project approval, the Planning Board ignored a number of legitimate environmental concerns related to the solar project as advanced by members of the public and contained in reports and an affidavit from an engineering firm, including potential negative impacts to the community, impacts associated with storm water runoff and drainage and, in particular, the Putnam Brook ... and effects on property values and public safety concerns,” the legal challenge states.