Guilderland should pass a solar law with teeth

To the Editor:

I support solar energy and I am opposed to the proposed Dunnsville Road Solar Array. It looks like a lot of other people agree with me. Since Jan. 30, over 1,800 people have signed an online petition to oppose large solar arrays in the Helderberg viewshed.

The Guilderland Town Board seems to be listening. At its board meeting Tuesday night, the town took a positive first step in updating their local law governing solar facilities. The important and sweeping changes include requiring a visual impact assessment.

A public hearing is scheduled for March 3. I urge the town of Guilderland to pass a revised solar law with teeth, so we can have solar projects that do not destroy the landscapes that have drawn us here.

It is also necessary that the Village of Altamont Referral Committee and the town of Guilderland deny the Dunnsville Road solar project for these reasons:

— Because of the slope, the proposed mitigations would never screen the sweeping view from the northeast as you approach the village of Altamont;

— Owners of Orchard Creek, the neighboring golf course and wedding business, which would be directly impacted by the over 15,000 panels in their view, had proposed to swap a similarly sized parcel of land that was not in the viewshed. This was declined by the landowner … ; and

— The town comprehensive plan specifically cites the importance of protecting the Helderberg viewshed as an asset that requires protection.

This conflict didn’t have to happen.

In researching these issues, I came across a 2019 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Program Policy document that seems to contradict the planning board’s dismissal of aesthetics in the Dunnsville Road project: 

“An ever-expanding body of research has demonstrated that aesthetic values (the perceived beauty of a place or structure) are shared among the general population. This research finds that such values are not idiosyncratic, random or arbitrary.

“For example, millions of people visit Niagara Falls and many other attractions and have a shared appreciation of the beauty of such places ... The SEQR [State Environmental Quality Review] Handbook states that because the quality of an aesthetic resource cannot be determined by a precise formula and because opinions may vary concerning the evaluation of visual impacts, there exists a widespread, but erroneous notion that analysis of aesthetic impacts is hopelessly subjective.

“Instead, research has clearly established that landscape preference and perception are not arbitrary or random. There is substantial regularity in human perceptions of significant adverse and beneficial visual impacts. It is upon this regularity of human judgement concerning aesthetics that objective decision making depends.” (DEP-00-2/Assessing and Mitigating Visual and Aesthetic Impacts, p. 2)

In other words, it’s important for the planning board to take the landscape and viewshed into account when approving new industrial-scale projects.

It turns out that this conflict has been foreseen by environmentalists, planners, and advocates of renewable energy for some time. In a 2017 paper, Eleanor Stein and Mike O’Boyle write:

“Significant local opposition indicates a legitimate concern. Without addressing local opposition, state or federal siting preemption often unnecessarily overlooks solutions that can achieve the same needed infrastructure without burdening local communities.

“These communities often lack ordinances for renewable infrastructure, so when a project is proposed there is a scramble to respond, leaving local action open to the most vocal opponents. As such, local governments should consider creating ordinances that deal with clean energy siting before a new project arises.” (Siting renewable generation: the northeast perspective. March 2017)

Stein and O’Boyle are committed to moving quickly to achieve “decarbonization.” They advocate siting solar and wind farms in already compromised settings (e.g. brownfields), parking-lot roofs, shopping centers, and even prison lands. They also recommend an alliance with land trusts to “aid in identifying suitable sites for solar and wind farms.”

I applaud Supervisor Peter Barber’s quick response to the public’s support of protecting our viewshed and understand that quick passage of the new law is required to regulate incoming solar projects. In addition to the new solar law, I believe the town should take the following actions that would ultimately speed solar development in Guilderland:

— Assess critical viewsheds to be protected, something envisioned by the comprehensive plan but never undertaken by the town;

— Map solar development zones that meet the needs of solar companies but do not interfere with the viewshed;

— Make rooftop solar a condition of new commercial construction;

— Find ways to promote rooftop solar on existing shopping malls and parking garages; and

— Explore solar installation on brownfields such as the former Army depot and transfer station.

Laura Shore


Editor’s note: See related story.

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