EDITORIAL: Copake needs panel discussion

WE’VE HAD TOO MUCH sunshine around here lately. Mini-showers barely wet the dust. No wonder there’s a plan to build a 60 MW solar farm in the Town of Copake.

Want a solar farm as a neighbor? Some folks already have panels on their roofs. Copake zoning allows small solar voltaic arrays. But a company called Hecate (pronounced HEK-a-tee) Energy has bigger plans. Fifty times bigger than the town allows.

If Hecate has to abide by local zoning it’s quite likely that the company would not receive approval for a 500-acre facility spread over a 900 acres in the hamlet of Craryville mostly south of state Route 23. The plan also calls for a bunch of quaint 53-foot-long shipping containers filled with Lithium-ion batteries that will store some of the electricity produced by the proposed 200,000 solar panels.

But it’s possible town officials won’t have the opportunity to exercise their authority over this project. Hecate has filed it’s application for this 60MW industrial facility under a provision of state law called Article 10, which gives the state, not the town, the right to review—and to approve or reject—the project.

Can they do that? Possibly, although it’s being challenged elsewhere in court. But we’re told not to worry our little rural heads about it. Alex Campbell is the Hecate project manager for what his company calls Shepherd’s Run Solar. He told The Columbia Paper’s Associate Editor Diane Valden earlier this month that his company looks for local input because, “It’s just a good way to do business.”

And then, last week, local input became less of a good business practice. Hecate decided not to hold open houses to explain details of the proposal and hear local feedback that might lead to changes or even improvements of the Shepherd’s Run Solar plan. The reason cited was the Covid-19 pandemic.

Okay. Government and business get things done these days online and in real-time with video meetings on Zoom and its competitors. Even as the economy reopens and the new normal unfolds the Zoom-o-sphere remains a safer way to discuss issues like this than face-to-face gatherings. But what do you do about nearby Craryville residents who don’t have broadband internet service or who aren’t online at all? Are they to be excluded from this discussion? The company sent postcards to residents living nearby the site. That’s an insult, not a solution.

And then, to compound the process of discouraging public input, Hecate has left the deadline for this first and potentially most significant public response opportunity as this Friday, June 26. If that’s what Hecate calls “good business,” the people of Copake and the rest of the county should reply: Good riddance.

The company’s concern over physical gatherings during a pandemic is legitimate. But it is not an excuse for failing to share information about this project so that all interested parties have a chance to air their views. This does not require postponing all deadlines until the pandemic ends, but it does call for more time.

The way to get that time is for people to let lawmakers and state officials know you want them to act. Ask Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106th) and state Senator Daphne Jordan (R-43rd) to press the state Department of Public Service (DPS) to extend until at least to the end of August the deadline for Hecate to offer information on Shepherd’s Run Solar to all residents of the Town of Copake who request it and to record all residents’ comments about the proposal. Make the same request of the staff at state DPS.

Solar farms like the one Hecate proposes are part of the most optimistic predictions for the future of our species. Solar farms are quiet. Their operation produces visual pollution but little that threatens physical health. Once their useful life ends, the infrastructure can be removed, with some recycled. The land beneath returns to its natural state. They are hopeful signs as well as unsightly neighbors. It’s sad that we argue about them.

But we can’t help ourselves. As much as we talk about how important it is, we resist change. It doesn’t help when a company that builds things that might improve lives, even our own, puts its corporate timetable ahead of the public’s right to know. It falls into the trap of the same-old, same-old. It’s no way to build the future.

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