New solar law “threatens” potential Berne solar farm

Photo from Google Earth

 The area outlined shows the approximate parcel where TJA Clean Energy hopes to build a solar farm. The nearly 46-acre parcel is owned by Pillar, LLC, and has a full market value of $56,610, according to the Albany County assessment roll.

BERNE — TJA Clean Energy, the company that submitted a letter of intent to the town of Berne shortly before the town council adopted industrial-scale solar facility regulations on Dec. 17, told The Enterprise this week that their hopes of proposing a solar farm spanning up to 25 acres are complicated by the new law.

The law states that solar facilities in Berne can be no larger than 10 acres. 

“We just received a copy of the bylaws, and we’re scrambling to make some changes,” Project Development Engineer Michael Frateschi told The Enterprise.

He said that the law “definitely threatens” the likelihood of a farm being built on a 46-acre parcel near the intersection of Canaday Hill and Switzkill roads.

The parcel is adjacent to 2216 Switzkill Road, a two and one-half acre parcel that contains a home, owned by James Hamilton, according to the 2019 assessment roll. 

Hamilton, who could not be reached for comment, rents the home out to a person who contacted the Enterprise to say that Hamilton is concerned about the impact of the solar farm on the property value and sell the house preemptively. 

Because the resident holds a public position and identifying their place of residence would risk their life or livelihood, The Enterprise has agreed to withhold their name.

“My landlord might sell the house now, under these circumstances,” the resident said. 

“We’ve been living there for four years and we’re good tenants,” they explained. “We have a family and animals, so finding another place is hard. I’m not in a position to buy a house, and that’s why I rent.”

The resident said they were “surprised” that neither they, nor Hamilton, received notice from the town about the potential impact on their property.

“[My landlord and I] called each other and were like, ‘What the heck is going on?’” they said.

The resident’s concern reflects a larger debate around solar energy that balances on the sometimes-opposing ideals of renewable energy and natural beauty — the latter of which plays heavily into the valuation of properties.

In Westerlo, the two 45-acre solar farms that sit near each other on the Shepard Farm property have elicited a number of complaints from residents who feel the panels interrupt the nature of the landscape.

As head of Westerlo’s planning board, Republican solar-advocate Dorothy Verch was seen by residents as the face of Westerlo’s solar developments, which GOP chair Lisa DeGroff suggested may have cost Verch her election as town supervisor in November despite sweeping Republican victories in the town overall.

When asked about visual impact, Frateschi replied that the solar farm would be partially screened by a hedgerow that already surrounds the parcel, but that the company will take additional steps to minimize aesthetic impact on the area if needed.

“Visibility is always a concern for us and we try to manage that,” Frateschi said. “We want to be a silent and non-intrusive neighbor.”

Frateschi explained that, because the panels would be on a tracking system as opposed to a fixed-tilt system, the height of the panels would likely be eight or nine feet, which is shorter than those of the fixed-tilt variety.

“This is going to be a community solar farm,” Frateschi told The Enterprise in an interview earlier this week, before the company received a copy of the laws and the discrepancy was identified. “It’s five-megawatts so it will be enough power for about 1,000 homes.”

Berne has about 1,500 housing units.

Frateschi said that each megawatt can be expected to occupy about five acres, so a 10-acre farm would likely power around 400 homes.

Frateschi said that residents of the town would be able to get power from the farm through a subscription, which would in turn generate credits on their energy bills.

“Typically, [subscribers] save anywhere around 10-percent on their energy bills through this facility,” Frateschi said.

Without going into details, Frateschi told The Enterprise that TJA Clean Energy will try to make changes to their draft so that it complies with the town’s industrial-scale solar regulations, but otherwise seek variances.

He said that, despite the last-minute “scramble” to make changes, the company hopes to have a plan submitted to the town’s planning board sometime in February.

Berne’s planning board is headed by Thomas Spargo, a former state judge convicted of extortion and bribery, who received a surprise appointment as chairman during a disruptive reorganizational meeting on Jan. 1. 

Because Spargo took the place of long-time chairman Todd Schwendeman — who, before the meeting, received a unanimous recommendation from the rest of the board  to continue his tenure — and has never been officially involved in town planning, his first major moves as chair will be watched closely by Berne residents who are curious about his philosophies and intentions in the role.

When approached at the planning board’s first meeting of the new year, Spargo told The Enterprise he would not speak to the paper because he signed a non-disclosure agreement with the town, which recently decreed that no town board member is authorized to share town business without written authorization from the majority of the board.

The soon-to-be-proposed solar farm will likely be one of Spargo’s first major projects as planning board chairman, though he is aided by long-time members like Schwendeman and Michael Vincent.

Frateschi acknowledged that the letter of intent was submitted after the company learned the majority power of the town board shifted from Democrat to Republican in the November elections.

“We understood that a new board was coming in that would get rid of a solar moratorium that was established in the town,” Frateschi said.

Berne’s solar moratorium, enacted in 2016 by the Democrat-majority board of the time so the town could develop regulations, was set to expire in August 2020 but automatically expired when the law was adopted.  Town Supervisor Sean Lyons and Councilman Dennis Palow, both Republicans, voted against the moratorium when it was up for renewal in February of last year. 

Supervisor Lyons did not return a call seeking comment. He has stated that he will not respond to questions from the Enterprise.

More Hilltowns News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.