Solar law tabled after questions arise in public hearing

Enterprise File Photo — Michael Koff

The Owens Corning plant in Feura Bush was referenced in Westerlo for its use of solar arrays that cover just over nine acres. It is surrounded by a fence and barbed wire, as the state requires, which were also discussed at the recent Westerlo meeting.

WESTERLO — A newly drafted solar law was tabled at a Westerlo Town Board meeting on Feb. 14 after a public hearing brought up many questions about the proposed law — mostly on stipulations for commercial arrays.

Councilman William Bichteman said he expects there to be another public hearing before the solar law can be put in place.

Currently, the town’s only regulation on solar is an allowance of the energy systems in the Rural Development/Agricultural Zone and the Residential Hamlet Zone.

The bill sets up an expedited process for energy systems with a capacity of 25 kilowatts or less. Applicants would be issued a combined building and electrical permit after submitting an application and site and project plans to the town’s building department.

This expedited process would essentially apply only to agricultural or residential solar energy systems, explained Edwin Lawson, the town’s code enforcement officer.

Lawson led much of public hearing, answering many of the questions from the audience, although town board members also spoke about the bill.

For commercial arrays, which are used for purposes other than agricultural or residential, the bill requires that systems be designed by a state licensed architect or engineer and meet applicable codes. A special-use permit is required, as is an escrow account of at least $7,500, a bond, and insurance.

Concerns raised

Bill Scrafford, of Eastern Mutual Insurance on Route 32 in Westerlo, said his company has been considering a solar array for the business’s use, not as a means of selling or making a profit. Scrafford asked what the requirements would be if his company did in fact set up such an array, which could end up producing more than 25 kilowatts to power the company’s offices, he said.

“We’re certainly not a residence, we’re not agricultural,” he said. “So what are we?”

Lawson said such an array would have to apply for a special use permit under the proposed law, which would subsequently be processed by the planning board, “And then it would be a done deal,” said Lawson.

Scrafford said the bill does not make that clear. He added that agricultural operations looking to solely power their own infrastructure with solar and not sell the energy could run into the same dilemma.

Bichteman asked what would happen to excess power and how that would be used by a commercial entity like Scrafford’s. Sitting in the audience, planning board Chairwoman Dorothy Verch said that excess solar energy would go into a fund, the same as for residential properties.

Audience member Anita Marrone asked what sort of tax policies would apply to businesses using solar arrays. Lawson said that would have to be left to the town assessor.

Later in the meeting, a woman who was identified by board members to be part of an out-of-state solar company looking to build in the town, said that the town should consider whether or not it should opt out of a 15-year real property tax exemption offered for properties with renewable energy systems. It applies to the value a system adds to the property. Local governments that opt out can reap the benefits of taxing large-scale solar companies but could also take away the benefit from homeowners.

Dennis Fancher, the town’s historian, was in the audience to express concerns about requirements for arrays.

All arrays must be 100 feet away from any lot line and 200 feet away from a body of water, including wetlands; be no higher than 20 feet; cover any parcel at a maximum of 20 acres; and prevent glare. Fancher said the requirements for the distance from a body of water were too ambiguous.

He pointed out that there are several different legal classifications for bodies of water, ranging from suitable drinking water sources to surface water with limited recreational use.

He also disagreed with the requirements for builders of commercial arrays to have all utilities serving the site buried, to have an eight-foot high fence surrounding the arrays, and to complete a visual environment assessment form.

Lawson replied that the setback requirements apply to most building codes and laws, and the requirement for the fence is from the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency. Representatives of solar companies in the audience clarified that the standard fence height was in fact six feet high with three strands of barbed wire.

New York State currently follows the 2014 National Electric Code, which has this requirement. The 2017 version requires a seven foot fence. Lawson said that, should the code require a higher fence, the town would go by that new requirement.

One audience member cited a model law prohibiting solar panels from being placed in a front yard. Another member of the audience said that this would not make sense in a town like Westerlo, where a home in the middle of a large parcel of land makes for a large front yard. Bichteman said there is also concern over whether a homeowner would have space available in other portions of the property besides the front yard. Lawson added that there is no law now to stop someone from putting a garage in their front yard, either.

Audience members also debated the necessity of insurance and the provision of a surety bond for commercial arrays. The bill refers to a bond in both the construction and maintenance of a solar energy system as well as the case in which the system ends up abandoned. Some in the gallery recommended that the wording be changed so that it was clear the law was referencing one bond for both purposes and not two. The bond would be for 20 percent of the construction costs.

Insurance for commercial arrays would have to be at least $1 million in coverage from a provider licensed with the state. The town and its agencies would have to be included under the coverage.

An resident objected to this, saying that insurance should be the responsibility of the company to set up.

The representative from the solar company noted that costs of decommissioning a project could be allayed by salvaging scrap metal from the arrays.

“You’ve got to consider that this stuff has real value,” she said, noting the cost of scrap metal.

Lawson noted during the meeting that the complaints being made were about laws not yet put in place. “Now that we’re hearing this, these folks can make the recommendation to change it,” he said, referring to the town board.

More Hilltowns News

  • Republican endorsee Kregg Grippo is running for Knox supervisor against former assessor Russ Pokorny, a Democrat who has run for supervisor before but lost. Resident Brigitte McAuliffe is shooting for a spot on the town board on her own Accountability line, running against Republican-backed incumbents Karl Pritchard and Ken Saddlemire.

  • Westerlo Deputy Supervisor Kryzak had ordered the town’s attorney to send out a notice to Viking Solar owner Jamison Corallo to let him know that, after an extended period of noncompliance, his relationship with the town as a commercial trash hauler was to be terminated. Corallo told The Enterprise this week that he’s working on compliance and will make an appeal to the town board.

  • Jen Guarino

    Democrat Jean Guarino is facing off against Republican Kristin Francis for Berne town clerk. The winner will replace Democrat Anita Clayton, who is currently running for a town board seat on the Republican line. 

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.