As residents and owners of Altamont Orchards look to preserve scenic views of Helderbergs, Guilderland seeks to update solar law

— From Helios Energy New York 13, LLC
An aerial view: A proposed solar array on Dunnsville Road in Guilderland would be the largest in town, with panels occupying about half of the 65-acre site.

GUILDERLAND — The owners of Orchard Creek Golf Course have proposed a land swap to shield their customers as well as residents of Dunnsville Road from what would be the largest solar array in Guilderland.

John Abbruzzese, who owns the golf course with his brothers, told The Enterprise that he made the informal offer to Joseph Muia, who owns the adjacent property and is proposing to install a five-megawatt solar array on a 65-acre field that slopes upward beside Orchard Creek.

Abbruzzese said Muia seemed amenable but Muia said he had to talk to Helios, the company installing the solar array, and told Abbruzzese they would discuss the issue after the holidays.

“Which is where we are now,” Abbruzzese said. 

Muia could not be reached for comment.  

But Abbruzzese may be getting some help from the town.

The Guilderland Town Board voted Tuesday night to hold a public hearing on multiple proposed changes — mainly additions — to its 2016 solar law. 

Supervisor Peter Barber said at the meeting that the changes came about in response to concerns about solar facilities, particularly in the rural parts of the town, that people have expressed at various town meetings. 

“My goal would be to get a local law adopted so that it would be applicable to that application,” Barber said of Muia’s proposal, “but again I’ll make it clear that it’s not targeted at that application or that property.”

Guilderland adopted its current solar regulations in 2016, based on a model law that the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority sent out to communities at that time. 

NYSERDA has “come up with some more items,” Barber said of the proposed amendments introduced on Tuesday, which add some requirements for considering solar energy, including a visual-impact assessment required for “known, important views.” 

In addition, he said, the boards making decisions on solar projects should also consult the Rural Guilderland Open Spaces, Farmland Protection Plan as well as the Helderberg Escarpment Planning Guide that the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy has put out. 

The proposed amendments would also require some line-of-sight profile analysis and potentially some additional digital viewshed report. 

Barber proposed “a fairly aggressive date, March 3,” for the public hearing on the changes to the local law. 

He asked that any residents who want to suggest additional changes get them to him by email immediately — by Friday, Feb. 7, he asked — because he needs to send the proposed changes to reviewing agencies that afternoon, in order to be able to hold the public hearing in early March.

On Thursday, Barber announced that the deadline for submitting comments on the draft local law has been extended to noon on Thursday, Feb. 13.

One of the reviewing agencies is the Albany County Planning Board, which Barber said is likely to defer to local consideration, the town’s planning board, and NYSERDA.

The town board voted unanimously to set the public hearing for March 3, at 7 p.m., but Barber cautioned residents to check the town website as that date draws closer. 

After the meeting, Barber told The Enterprise, “If the local law gets adopted, and the ZBA matter is still pending, then that will be the law in existence when they consider the project.” 

Asked if the zoning board might be required to wait for the law to be passed, Barber, referencing the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, said, “I believe the planning board requires this to be sent to the DEC for wetland determination, so I think that takes some time. I think most boards are aware of what the other boards are doing. They’ll wait a respectful period of time.” 


A proposed trade

The Abbruzzeses own the land on either side of Muia’s, so what John Abbruzzese is proposing is to swap the nearly 57 acres of land he owns at 6580 Dunnsville Road and, in return, the Abbruzzeses would receive the sloping field that Muia owns, which is visible from Orchard Creek’s wedding venue.

The first time the subject of a land swap was broached, Donna Abbruzzese, John’s wife, claims Muia said the swap would take too much time and would delay the project. 

John Abbruzzese said he asked Muia, if Muia had already been working with Helios on the project for two to three years, what’s another six months for something that, Donna Abbruzzese said, would be in the community for the next 20 or more years. 

Donna Abbruzzese said the land her husband and his brothers are proposing to swap is “sited very well” for solar. It’s a south-facing parcel, she said. 

Muia’s property, she claims, is not on a southern slope; it faces north. But there is new technology that allows the panels to move with the sun, John Abbruzzese said, which is what would be installed on the Muia property.

Donna Abbruzzese added that her husband had been approached by another solar company who told him that his parcel was an ideal spot for solar. But John Abbruzzese said he didn’t want to entertain solar on the site because he’s trying to get Muia to swap parcels with him.

“It is a piece of property that, if another solar company would be interested in it, certainly Joe Muia’s solar company should be [interested in it] because it is on a southern slope,” he said. 

Asked if Muia has been a good neighbor outside of the current situation, John Abbruzzese said he says “hello” to him, sees him running down the road, and added,“We have no animosity toward him at all.” Abbruzzese said he knows Muia’s family and his kids, and that he’s never had any trouble with either. 

In fact, back in 1998, Muia, a lawyer, represented John Abbruzzese but never went through with the case because Muia changed jobs, Abbruzzese said.

Speaking to Muia being a good neighbor, Donna Abbruzzese said that she and her husband hadn’t heard anything about Muia’s solar proposal until it went before the planning board, and the Abbruzzeses were notified of the project by the board. John Abbruzzese claims Muia admitted to him that he knows the proposed solar project would hurt Abbruzzese’s businesses.

Seventeen-hundred-plus signatures

When Laura Shore first heard about the Muia solar proposal, she didn’t think it was possible the project would be approved.

Shore had attended the December 2019 Guilderland Planning Board meeting and said she was “astounded” by how insulting and arrogant the members of the planning board had been toward people in the gallery who, in her view, had been raising legitimate concerns about the proposal. (The solar array was first proposed to the planning board in June 2019.) 

Then, when Shore saw that the planning board had made its recommendations to the zoning board, she decided to see just how many people really care about the proposed solar array. She posted a petition online.

Within 24 hours, the petition garnered 1,000 signatures. As of Wednesday at 2:30 p.m., the petition had just under 1,800 signatures. Of the people who were willing to list their municipality of residence, Shore said, there were 205 from Altamont; she had yet to count the number of Guilderland residents. (Altamont is a village within the town of Guilderland.)

Shore also said that she and some others are doing door-to-door petitioning in both the village and the town because there are many people who aren’t comfortable with signing an online petition. 

Proposals for town projects that are within 1,200 feet of the village boundary or within 1,200 feet of Altamont’s current or future water system must be referred to the village for a recommendation. It would take a supermajority vote — a majority plus one — of the Guilderland Planning Board to overturn Altamont’s recommendation.

The Dunnsville array was referred to the Rural Guilderland Referral Committee about a week ago, Mayor Kerry Dineen said. The committee will review the proposal and make a recommendation to the village board, which is anticipated to vote on the project at its Feb. 26 budget workshop.

In September 2016, the town considered an application from U. S. Solar Solutions for a solar farm off Route 156 above the village of Altamont, but that application was withdrawn after Altamont’s village board voted unanimously to recommend that Guilderland’s zoning board disapprove it. 

“I think you are going to see a very broad and deep resistance to this thing,” Shore said of the Muia solar proposal, and one place where she found comity where there once was enmity was with village residents who were on opposing sides of the Stewart’s rezone debate.

Shore said those residents were on the same side when it came to opposing the commercial solar farm — not against solar, just the siting of the Muia proposal. 

The more research that she’s done on the topic, the stronger she feels about the need for solar, she said. “I think it’s really, really important,” she said. However, as she writes in a letter to the Enterprise editor this week, Guilderland needs to take its comprehensive plan into account and establish areas that are off limits to solar development, which it has yet to do. 

— Elizabeth Floyd Mair contributed information to this story on the Feb. 4 Guilderland Town Board meeting. 

More Guilderland 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.