State now to weigh in on fate of solar farm

COPAKE—The clock is now ticking on the controversial industrial-scale Shepherd’s Run Solar Facility proposed for several sites along State Route 23 and County Route 7 in and around the Copake hamlet of Craryville.

Hecate Energy, a Chicago-based developer of solar and wind facilities and energy storage projects, filed its application for its 60 megawatt (MW) Shepherd’s Run solar facility March 8.

The submission of the application with the New York State Office of Renewable Energy Siting (ORES) has set in motion a 60 day clock—by the end of which ORES must have reviewed the application and determined its completeness and define deficiencies, if any.

Hecate proposes to build a solar-powered electric generating facility with 200,000 solar panels east of the Taconic Hills School District and north of Copake Lake. The solar panels will be erected on 220 acres of a 880-acre total project area. Much of the acreage is prime agricultural land. A school district and residential areas border the property.

The massive project is not permitted under Copake Zoning Law, yet it is moving forward because Hecate has bypassed local law and is seeking site approval from ORES under the state’s new streamlined siting process for renewable energy projects, known as 94-c.

If ORES deems the application complete, a 12-month review process involving “full public engagement” opens, Hecate Project Developer Alex Campbell said in a phone interview with The Columbia Paper this week.

If the application is not deemed complete then Hecate has an unspecified amount of time to remedy the deficiencies.

But the March 8 date is also significant, said Mr. Campbell, because it marks the availability of intervenor funding, which Hecate must provide to project stakeholders (affected municipalities and other parties). Stakeholders can apply for and use the money to hire experts to study certain aspects of the project; review the application and for legal fees (though not for judicial challenges).

Asked exactly how many pages the application has, Mr. Campbell said the application pages in a pile are as tall as he is–5’ 9”. “It’s ridiculous,” he added.

Over the past few months, a Working Group of people on all sides of the proposed solar facility, met to come up with a list of recommendations for how Hecate “can do better by Copake.”

The Working Group’s recommendations were the subject of a story in the March 3 issue of The Columbia Paper, “Solar farm group agrees, but town remains wary.” (www.columbiapaper.com)

Representatives from the Columbia Land Conservancy (CLC), Scenic Hudson, Friends of Columbia Solar and Sensible Solar for Rural New York were all part of the Working Group, which gathered public feedback on the project during 2021. The group also worked with advisors: Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106th), American Farmland Trust, Cornell University—College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, landscape architects and the Rheinstrom Hill Audubon Sanctuary, which the Hecate project abuts.

The Group proposed the following improvements to Shepherd’s Run:

•Protecting the environment by including community-accessible greenspace and a railtrail extension; no clear-cutting of trees (the project includes the clear-cutting of 40 acres)

•Protecting homeowners by using scenic screening to integrate panels and views, monetary compensation for nearby homeowners and decommissioning panels

•Protecting agriculture by farming and grazing under the panels and providing educational programs with local schools and colleges

•Benefiting the community by lowering electric bills for local residents, providing solar panels for the Taconic Hills Central School District, paying full property taxes for county, town and schools and buying and hiring local.

The Working Group was hoping that Hecate would delay the filing of its application “until more recommendations can be fully incorporated into the project,” according to March 7 press release issued by the group.

“Ultimately, the Working Group wants to see its recommendations fully incorporated into the final project approval by ORES and into a host community benefit agreement between the developer and the Town of Copake. To that end, the Group is calling on ORES to not deem Hecate’s application complete until they have fully incorporated the Working Group’s recommendations,” the release said.

“We are reviewing Hecate’s application to see what recommendations of the Working Group have been incorporated into Hecate’s submission. We are committed to ensuring that all of the Copake community’s concerns—to protect our environment, our homeowners, our agriculture and our community—are addressed through improvements in the final project,” Meredith J. Kane, a member of Sensible Solar for Rural New York, said by email this week.

Dan Haas with Friends of Columbia Solar said by email, “Friends of Columbia Solar stands firmly behind the plans of the Working Group to make Shepherd’s Run the best possible solar project for Copake, and a model for getting similar projects completed across New York state. Efforts to cope with the climate crisis start here.”

Mr. Campbell said he did not have an opinion on the Working Group’s call for ORES not to deem the application complete until all recommendations are incorporated. He did say that Hecate is committed to working with the Group on accomplishing all recommendations that are outside the specific solar project such as the extension of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail and new trail access to the Rheinstrom Hill Audubon Sanctuary.

He also praised the Working Group as a model for all communities where solar development is coming or is now taking place. He said the Group is not only a voice for the community but is made up of local people who the community listens to.

In his March 10 Hecate update report to the Town Board, Deputy Copake Town Supervisor Richard Wolf cited Mr. Campbell’s earlier claim that “The vast majority of the Working Group’s suggestions were integrated into the Project’s application/design.”

Mr. Wolf said since the town’s attorney has not yet had a chance to “to review the massive application and exhibits… it is impossible to assess the accuracy of this claim.”

But he said information on the Shepherd’s Run website about three important recommendations: landscaping/screening; compensation to project-adjacent homeowners; and the clear-cutting of 40 acres of existing forest “is not encouraging.”

With regard to the “do not clear-cut 40 acres of existing forested land,” recommendation, Mr. Wolf said, “Rather than relocate the panels slated to replace forested land, ‘Hecate has committed to include approximately 800 trees and 800 scrubs in the Project’s landscaping plan. Hecate will perform a detailed greenhouse gas calculation to show the net benefit of installing the Project and how long it will take to negate the loss…’ of the forested area. In other words, Hecate, while it claims to be working to save the planet, is nonetheless willing to lose the carbon-capturing benefits of 40 acres of forested land rather than move the panels or slightly reduce the size (and the profitability) of Shepherd’s Run.”

Deputy Supervisor Wolf noted that Supervisor Jeanne Mettler has written to Governor Kathy Hochul urging her to get involved in helping to fashion a win-win solution, and to see for herself the Working Group’s online presentation.

Ms. Mettler wrote, “ORES should not deem the Hecate application complete until Hecate has fully adopted or at a minimum has demonstrated why they cannot adopt each of the proposals.”

The letter can be found on the Town website (townofcopake.org.) More information about the Working Group and its recommendations can be found at www.craryvillegateway.org.

To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@columbiapaper.com

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