Land-swap nixed but view may yet be preserved

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 

John Abbruzzese stands on land owned by Joseph Muia, whose barn can be seen in the background, and where Muia has proposed building a solar farm. 

This story has been updated since it was printed Feb. 27, 2020.

GUILDERLAND — Although a handshake deal to swap land for a solar farm, to preserve the view of the Helderbergs, is off as of Thursday, another plan to save the view is in the works.

John Abbruzzese, who with his brothers owns Altamont Orchards — an apple farm that became a golf course and event venue, still hopes to come to an agreement with his neighbor Joseph Muia, who had planned to have a five-megawatt solar array featuring more than 10,000 solar panels installed on his property next to the golf course on Dunnsville Road.

Muia’s original plan had raised a large outcry from residents and prompted Guilderland to begin adding new language about protecting viewsheds to its solar law. 

Abbruzzese had offered to swap Muia’s land for a similarly sized parcel that he owns which is set further back from the road, behind Muia’s land, hard to see from the road, as an alternative site for the solar array. 

Muia has nixed the idea of the swap, Abbruzzese told The Enterprise on Feb. 27, and has now offered instead to buy Abbruzzese’s back parcel. Muia wants to keep the front parcel, Abbruzzese said. 

Abbruzzese said that the only way he will sell the back parcel — or would have swapped it — is if Muia agrees to place a deed restriction on the front parcel, saying that no commercial development of any kind, and no wind or solar farms, can be built there. 

“As long as we have that language, all our intents will have been satisfied,” said Donna Abbruzzese, John Abbruzzese’s wife, on Feb. 27. The deed restriction on Muia’s land would only be possible, she said, if the solar array is approved on the back property.

The Enterprise printed a front-page story Thursday morning, “Land swap?,” detailing the handshake deal.

The village of Altamont and its surroundings are now dotted with signs reading “Save Our View,” with a photo of the land where Muia originally proposed building the solar farm. An online petition against the plan has gotten over 2,000 signatures, according to Laura Shore, who circulated the petition; she added that she has since gone through the online signatures and weeded them down to “about 1,300 very good, solid regional signatures.”

Altamont resident Kristin Casey has also gotten about 100 signatures on a physical petition, Shore said. Many local residents have written letters to town officials and to the Enterprise editor as well as speaking against the plan at meetings. 

The parcel Abbruzzese hoped to swap with Muia and may now sell to him is planted with rows of abandoned apple trees from an earlier time, before the golf course went in, when the Abbruzzeses produced three times as many apples as they do now. 

“If you’re not big enough, it’s hard to compete,” he said of running an orchard. The family opened the golf course out of necessity, when it became too difficult to compete with larger apple producers who could not only offer local supermarket chains the fruit at a good price but could also throw in perks like free television advertisements. 

“These apple trees come out very easily. They’re very shallow-rooted,” Abbruzzese told The Enterprise on Wednesday, on a tour of the area, riding over mud and ice on an all-terrain vehicle. 

Reached by phone Tuesday at the state office where he works as an attorney, Muia declined to comment.

The company planning to build the array is Helios Solar, LLC, founded in Michigan in 2009. On Tuesday, Helios co-owner Michael Lossia told The Enterprise that the possibility of moving the project to what he called “a far more isolated property” has been presented, but that “currently nothing has been decided.” 

Strong negative feedback has been expressed by local residents, Lossia said. It’s not the most negative feedback that any Helios project has received, Lossia said, but it’s probably in the 90th percentile. 

If the project were to be moved to what is now Abbruzzese’s property, he would want to be sure that it would go through on the new site, Lossia said. 

The solar farm, if moved, would be closer to a home owned by Allen and Donna Armstrong, at 6572 Dunnsville Road. Donna Armstrong told The Enterprise this week, “I’m so glad it’s being moved. I felt it was ruining the view for the hundreds of people coming into the village.” 

The land drops off behind her house, Armstrong said, so she is hoping the drop-off will block her view of the solar farm. Armstrong said she would just want to have assurances about issues such as the setbacks and the screening.

At the Abbruzzeses’ home on Dunnsville Road, John’s wife, Donna Abbruzzese, reflected on Wednesday, “I think the benefit to the community is that we’ve moved the solar array to a place where it can’t be seen — hopefully. And also now they’re looking at the language, so we won’t have to fight this fight every time.”

She was referring to changes that Guilderland is currently considering to its solar law, including adding language about the need to consider the viewshed when siting solar farms. 

“It’s very exciting. We can’t celebrate yet. But it feels like a happy ending,” said Laura Shore. 

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