Towns want a say in solar power’s bright future

COPAKE—The future of energy generation has arrived.

With renewable sources such as sun and wind power already in use, towns throughout Columbia County and across the state are crafting laws to regulate the development of commercial and residential energy system installations.

The “Land of Rural Charm” is one of several towns in Columbia County poised to enact a local solar energy law.

Last May, the Copake Town Board declared a 12-month moratorium on commercial solar energy installations.

One large commercial solar array had already sprung up in a former cornfield on the north side of Route 23 at the County Route 11A intersection in Craryville.

Town Planning Board Chair Bob Haight told the Town Board in March 2016 that Planning Board members had voted unanimously to recommend that the Town Board establish a moratorium on the construction of commercial solar parks until some regulations dealing with them could be devised and included in town code revisions, which were underway.

Now, though town zoning revisions are not yet complete, the draft of a new town solar energy law has been written. A public hearing on the new law, which is currently under review by the Columbia County Planning Board, has already been conducted and the Town Board is expected to vote on the measure in March, Copake Supervisor Jeff Nayer said recently.

The new law differentiates between small-scale, unclassified and utility-scale solar energy systems.

A small-scale system is designed to generate energy for use on the lot where it is located, whether it is a residence, business or farm.

Utility-scale systems primarily generate energy to supply the utility grid to be sold to the general public or to supply multiple users off site. (See the sidebar to this story for a list of requirements in the application process for a utility-scale system in Copake.)

An unclassified system is one that does not fit either of the other definitions.

Copake’s proposed law states that the town “recognizes that solar energy is a clean, readily available, and renewable energy source” and that solar energy systems can “offset energy demand on the grid.”

The proposal also acknowledges regulations “are necessary to protect the interests of the Town, its residents, its farmland, and its businesses.”

The aim of the proposal is “to accommodate solar energy systems” while considering both the potential impact on neighbors and the rights of property owners to install solar systems.

The law would govern the “placement, design, construction, and operation” of systems consistent with the Town of Copake Comprehensive Plan. It also seeks “uphold the public health, safety, and welfare; and to ensure that such systems will not have a significant adverse impact on the environment or on aesthetic qualities and character of the Town.”

Like Copake, the Town of Greenport has an operating commercial solar park. The Greenport facility is on 21-acres at 90 Blue Hill Road off County Route 31 and Greenport is also working to put regulations on the books.

Greenport Supervisor Edward Nabozny said by phone that his town enacted a six-month moratorium on “certain solar energy facilities” in June 2016, and renewed it for another six-months last December.

The town is in the process of reviewing and formulating solar farm guidelines, said the supervisor and the Town Board expects to set a public hearing at its March meeting with a vote on implementation of the new law in April or May. Greenport, which has no zoning in place, is also in the process of developing a Comprehensive Plan, Mr. Nabozny said.

In Hillsdale, Town Supervisor Peter Cipkowski told The Columbia Paper by email, “We have an existing moratorium on solar commercial farms in place and a draft is underway for Local Law #1 2017 that is being now reviewed by a committee comprised of myself, Councilperson Robina Ward, Climate Smart Chair Tom Carty, and Planning Board Chair Hank Henward. It was drafted by the Town Attorney Dick Alford in partnership with his associate Matt Cabral and is based on best practice recommendations.” Hillsdale’s proposed law is also being reviewed by the town Conservation Advisory Council.

A six-month moratorium was adopted last September on the installation of solar energy systems with the exception systems for the primary purpose of onsite residential power consumption.

If all goes according to plan, the Hillsdale Town Board will renew the moratorium in March, conduct a public hearing on a new draft solar energy law prior to its April meeting followed by a board vote at the April 11 Town Board meeting, Mr. Cipkowski said by email.

In Livingston, the Town Board adopted an amendment to Town Zoning Law in relation to solar energy uses, January 12. Large-scale solar systems require a special use permit, which includes a site plan review. Applications for large-scale systems first go to the building inspector, then the Planning Board reviews the plans and decides whether to grant, deny or set conditions on the plan.

Under Ancram Zoning law adopted November 2014, consistent with the town’s Comprehensive Plan, large commercial wind or solar projects are not permitted. Town Supervisor Art Bassin said by phone that these operations “are inconsistent with the rural character of the community.”

The Town of New Lebanon has slated a special meeting February 28 to discuss proposed changes to Zoning Regulations, including solar regulations.

It is debatable whether or not Columbia County is notably more attractive than places like western New York to companies looking to establish commercial solar farms or parks to generate energy for distribution elsewhere, but what these companies seek are large, open, undeveloped spaces with good exposure to the sun and in some proximity to “three-phase power” (a power transfer method), Columbia Land Conservancy (CLC) Executive Director Peter Paden told The Columbia Paper this week.

While he says he’s no expert on solar farms, he does know about farmland and says his organization is working on developing a policy statement on the issue. The CLC “works with the community to conserve the farmland, forests, wildlife habitat, and rural character of Columbia County, strengthening connections between people and the land,” according to its mission statement. The organization has protected 29,5000 acres so far in its 30-year history.

“Obviously, we support the idea of solar power as long as it respects conservation values,” he said. So for example, the placement of a solar array in the middle of really productive farm field would not be desirable.

How much an energy company would have to pay in rent for the land is also a consideration, Mr. Paden “guessed,” noting land rental in Columbia County is likely less costly than in Westchester or Putnam counties, if a company is looking for a Hudson Valley location.

To contact Diane Valden email

Some rules for sun farmers

Among the long list of requirements in Copake’s new law for utility-scale solar energy systems are that the applicant:

*Must obtain a special use permit and undergo a site plan review by the Planning Board. Such systems are not permitted within the town’s Scenic Corridor Overlay Zone, primarily located along Route 22.

*Must submit plans and drawings by a professional engineer registered in the state of the entire proposed system installation along with a description of components, existing vegetation and clearing a grading plans.

*Must submit a stormwater pollution prevention plan along with details about the noise that may be generated by inverter fans.

*Must submit a decommissioning plan and description of financial surety that satisfies the town that removal of inactive systems will be completed.

*Must pay all costs associated with the application review, such as engineering, legal, environmental, planning and SEQRA.

*Must have a minimum parcel size of 15-acres and the project must not adversely impact fish, wildlife, plants or significant habitats.

*Must meet setback requirements, be enclosed by an eight-foot security fence bearing high voltage warning signs every 100 feet.

 

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