A new crop is thriving in the farmlands of western Clifton Park. A drive through this part of town reveals new growth beginning to pop up here and there.
But there’s nothing edible. The new crop in town is solar panels.
In less than a year, four solar farms have been proposed and ultimately approved by the town Planning Board for property situated in the town’s mostly rural, undeveloped western side.
According to both town planners and farmers, the new land usage represents a win-win situation: It limits development pressures on the landscape, and at the same time it gives longtime farmers a chance to keep their lands in the family after farming operations have been forced to shutter.
The pitches for solar farms on the western side of town seemed to all happen at once.
In September, a 5.3-megawatt solar array by Borrego Solar was approved for construction at 25 Ashdown Road. Solitude Solar has been given the green light to build a 7-megawatt array on Sugar Hill Road. The largest of the three — also being built by Borrego — will be a 9.2-megawatt facility at 753 Grooms Road. A fourth farm was approved in late April, a 6.9-megawatt array that will be located at 267 Sugar Hill Road in Rexford on land that for decades was Lindsey’s Idyllwood apple orchard.
The power generation figures represent the maximum amount of electricity each array is expected to generate when finished.
All of the solar sites are slated for land that has been used for farming in the past.
Solar companies have been taking advantage of the town’s more rural western side and have successfully courted property owners of former farming acreage. Typically, to build farms, solar companies have entered into lease agreements with landowners to use the properties for roughly 20 years.
If the solar companies cannot obtain extensions on their lease agreements with the landowners, they will remove the arrays.
The panels are raised off the ground, high enough for grass to grow. Maintenance on the panels, as well as landscaping work, will be performed two to three times a year, according to the two solar energy firms.
In early January, the Planning Board was presented with what will be its fourth, and most likely final, solar farm proposal. The fourth farm, a 6.9 megawatt array, will be located at 267 Sugar Hill in Clifton Park’s Rexford section, on land that was for decades Lindsey’s Idyllwood apple orchard.
That project, also proposed by Borrego Solar, calls for 18,495 panels to be built on a 21.5-acre parcel.
However, according to John Scavo, the town’s planning director, there is a limit to the number of arrays that can be built in Clifton Park.
National Grid has provided maps that indicate the area where the farms are being built is served by substations that can support a total of 22 megawatts of energy being poured back into the area’s power grid.
With the three approved farms and the town’s currently operating solar array at its former landfill, those substations can only support about 7 more megawatts of solar power generation.
If solar companies want to bring in more arrays, they would likely need to pay for upgrades to the substations, making it more cost-effective for solar companies to just seek new areas in which to build facilities, said Scavo and various solar representatives at planning board meetings.
These four farms are considered “community solar” projects, which means any National Grid customer can access solar power generated by the arrays.
The community solar concept is designed for people who aren’t able to install panels on their own property for either financial or geographic reasons, but still want to take advantage of and support renewable energy.
In 2018, Gov. Andrew Cuomo pledged $40 million to support solar projects with the goal of having 50 percent of the state’s energy provided through renewable resources by 2025.
In 2005, the town finalized its Western Clifton Park Land Conservation Plan & Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement, a study that looked at approximately 13,900 acres of land in that portion of the town.
It was ultimately determined that the majority of the area studied — primarily composed of large-lot residential, farm, environmentally constrained and undeveloped land — should remain as is.
The town also has an open space plan, which was created in 2003, dedicated to identifying key areas of town ripe for permanent conservation.
Since the inception of these two plans, significant constraints have been placed on developers who wish to build homes in that area of town, including much lower acceptable density numbers than what might be permitted in other areas.
While solar farms are not explicitly mentioned in the town’s plans for development options that will maintain the area’s rural character, both planners and environmental advocates in town say they are preferable to any large residential developments going into the area.
“I’d rather see solar farms than apartments go up … than more supermarkets or something,” said Clifton Park Town Board member Amy Standaert, who also chairs the town’s Government Re-Thinking Energy & Environment Now, (GREEN) Committee, which advises the Town Board on energy and environmental impacts and issues.
Standaert pointed out that when people think of Clifton Park, what first jumps to mind is usually the busy area of town adjacent to Exit 9 of the Northway. But, she added, the majority of town has a much more rural nature, and it’s crucial to keep character and aesthetics in mind when designing in town.
“We don’t want to be overwhelming. We work really hard to keep character, whether it’s the Exit 9 area or the western side,” she said.
In the Planning Board’s work to navigate through the introduction of solar farms in town, its members have succeeded in making sure they are as unobtrusive as possible, usually mandating that the farms be built near the backs of properties so people driving by don’t see them, and providing proper cover to avoid any type of glare from the panels.
Town residents have had questions about the solar farms as they have been pitched, including how the arrays will look, what materials are inside them, how the arrays will be maintained once built and whether or not they will be visible from nearby homes.
Unlike most developments, solar farms don’t generate traffic in and out of the site. Plus, they provide farmers who are struggling financially the option to retain land that’s been in a family for generations instead of selling it to a developer.
“In my opinion I think solar energy is a great source of renewable energy and it’s wonderful, but I think there is a big difference between keeping western Clifton Park rural and building solar farms,” said town resident Jeannine Yates. “The original plan proposed by the town to keep it rural doesn’t include a solar farm, and now possibly four? In my opinion, rural would have a different look. Rural by definition means countryside.”
Yates added that she would like to see the town focus on keeping trees intact before finding reasons to take them down.
Other said that there could be a way to combine some moderate development with sustainable practices.
“Seems to me like the development isn’t going to stop anytime soon, so it might as well be done as sustainably as possible,” said resident Jay Emery. “My vote would be to require new apartment and town homes to include solar panels on every roof into their construction budget. Give them a tax break for an incentive if you need to, but it’s just wasted roof space otherwise. Carports can be built with solar roofs as well.”
A planning perspective
In his role as town planning director, Scavo has been involved in all stages of the solar farms development, from their initial pitch to their approved proposals.
While he has heard a few complaints that the solar farms are not technically an agricultural use of the land, in his opinion, they function as something better: a way for farmers to continue agricultural operations when it looks like there is no way to do so.
“I think it’s a win-all, too. This is something that can help them supplement agriculture. It allows them to have options down the road,” he said.
Clifton Park town Supervisor Phil Barrett noted that the solar farms are the result of private companies doing business with town residents and are by no means the only way Clifton Park has worked to preserve land.
Thousands of acres of land have been permanently preserved in Clifton Park through various open-space incentives and programs, which involved assistance on both the town and state levels.
“We’ve been very aggressive in working with large landowners on partnerships that work with them and work for the town,” Barrett said. He added that lower density of development in the western side of town is a direct result of the work accomplished in the western Clifton Park generic environmental impact Statements (GEIS).
Barrett also acknowledged that while the option to work with the town to preserve land is always there, landowners don’t always want to take that opportunity.
“That’s their right. That’s their property,” he said. In those situations, solar farms seem to be fulfilling the goal of keeping land open for at least a few decades.
“If they’re building a solar farm as opposed to building houses, or whatever would be allowed on that property, it seems to me that it’s doing just that — limiting future development for at least 20 to 25 years,” he said.
Keeping the land close
For traditional farmers, the welcoming of the solar farms onto their land is the result of what in the past has been a difficult choice: sell the land to developers for large profits or keep the land and risk a loss of income.
Duane Lindsey owns two of the four plots of land that will be home to solar farms — the orchard land and farmland at 753 Grooms Road.
After decades of operations as an iconic orchard widely known be generations of families in town, Lindsey made the decision to cease operations last October.
The decision to close was based on a major drop in revenue over the past year, high overhead costs and the fact that customers simply aren’t coming to pick apples there anymore.
Paying for orchard employees has also been costly, Lindsey said. For close to two decades, he employed a worker from Jamaica, and more recently the worker’s son, through a visa program.
Even though he made the decision to close his longtime business, Lindsey said he had absolutely no desire or intention to sell his land. In fact, some of the property on Grooms Road will still be used for smaller farming operations, such as growing hay and serving as paddocks for horses.
Approaching 67 years old, Lindsey was searching for a way to make use of his land without having to sell it. He sought out the solar companies when he realized the installations would be a way for him to still turn a profit for a long period of time without having to rely on the marathon workweeks he dealt with while farming.
“It just allows us to keep the land in the family and not sell it. I’ll get more out of the solar farms without doing anything than I did farming,” he said.
He added that, to he and his neighbors, keeping the western side of town’s character as a peaceful and quiet agricultural area was crucial— a goal that would be disrupted by housing developments — compared with the influx of large-scale projects across town in the more urbanized town center area.
“It’s just a different world here,” he said.
Locking down nearly two decade-long lease agreements for solar farms is a surefire way for Lindsey and his neighbors to know that there won’t be any building action on at least his land for the foreseeable future.
Designed to largely be hidden from sight, the solar farms will not be visible from the road when people drive by and won’t add strain to town utilities, such as water and sewer systems, in the way that homes would.
Solar farms, he pointed out, also do not generate traffic.
“I don’t want houses behind me. It’s not more houses. [That’s] the last thing I want to see here,” Lindsey said.