RIC Energy rejects all of county planning board’s concerns about Knox solar project

KNOX — RIC Energy, which has proposed a 4.4 megawatt solar facility on Thompsons Lake Road, in Knox, has sent a letter to the Knox Planning Board that rejects the concerns of the Albany County Planning Board, which issued its disapproval of the project last month.

At its March 11 meeting, the Knox Planning Board will discuss whether to move forward with the project despite county disapproval. A supermajority vote — five of the board’s seven members — is required.

The county planning board cited eight reasons for its decision, including the project’s supposed visibility from Thacher Park, as well as residents’ objections, various local and intermunicpality impacts, unfulfilled bureaucratic requirements, and the project’s proximity to Thacher Park and parcels within an agricultural district.

In the letter sent to the Knox Planning Board, RIC Energy’s chief executive officer Jonathan Rappe described the county planning board’s conclusions as “erroneous” and out of line with local considerations; he provided supporting documents for most of his assertions. 


Thacher visibility

Last month, The Enterprise spoke with Albany County Legislator William Reinhardt, a Democrat who helped develop a regulation that the county planning board cited regarding visibility from Thacher Park. Reinhardt said the regulation was meant to protect certain viewsheds.

“It’s not going to be every viewshed from every road,” he said. “The planning function is going to be to identify viewsheds that are most important. In that sense, the way you describe it … does not sound like what the legislation originally intended.” 

Furthermore, RIC Permitting Manager John Reagan provided The Enterprise with the company’s own sightline analysis, indicating that the facility would not be visible from the part of Thacher Park that runs along the edge of the escarpment because of the difference in elevation, which places the proposed solar site above the park, as well as a half-mile of forested land between the two, near the solar site. 

However, the Thacher Park complex includes Thomspons Lake State Park, the northwestern border of which is approximately 300 feet from the southeastern border of the proposed solar site. The area of the park in proximity to the proposed site appears from a trail map to be wooded. A portion of the park’s Meadow Loop trail, which runs along Helderberg Road, would be approximately half a mile from the proposed site.

Last week, Reagan sent The Enterprise a blog post on the New York State Parks website authored by state park administrators about the addition of solar arrays in various parks, to indicate that solar arrays and state parks are not incompatible.

“Parks selects locations for PV arrays that will not disturb natural areas of the park or areas of recreation,” part of the post reads. “They are often installed on rooftops, the back of parking lots, or in other areas that have previously been disturbed.”

The county planning board did not answer Enterprise questions about how it conducted its own sightline analysis, and Rappe wrote in his letter that RIC Energy is also unsure of how the board determined the facility would be visible from the park. 


Intermunicipal impact

The first point cited by the county planning board is potential intermunicipal impact or county-wide impact.

Rappe responded in his letter that the project was reviewed by the Knox Planning Board “in accordance with [the State Environmental Quality Review Act], the local Zoning law, and consideration of issues raised during the public hearing,” and that the project would not have an impact beyond the borders of Knox.



The county planning board stated that the proposed site would be within 500 feet of Thacher Park, the right-of-way of an existing state highway, and an agricultural district. 

Rappe points out in his letter, the proposed site is 1.93 miles away from Thacher Park, or more than 10,000 feet. He is apparently referring to the part of Thacher Park running along the edge of the escarpment, not the part at Thompsons Lake.

And, while the proposed site is close to an agricultural district, New York State Agriculture and Markets Law requires that a development must be within 500 feet of a “farm operation within an agricultural district.” 

Though Rappe states that the site is not in proximity to an active farm operation, it is within about 250 feet of a parcel that has active farmland, according to Enterprise measurements using a map tool, though owners Howard Zimmer and his wife told The Enterprise that their farmland is in the back end of their 30-acre property, which would move its proximity beyond 500 feet from the proposed project site. 

It’s not immediately clear whether the law requires an agricultural data statement from developments within 500 feet of a parcel that has active farmland, or if 500 feet is the required distance between the development site and the farmland itself. 

Reagan told The Enterprise this week that the company’s counsel advised them that the “correct way to interpret the … [law] is that the property has to be located within the ag district containing a farm or the property has to be within an ag district within 500 feet of a farm located within the ag district.”

Gopika Muddappa, interim senior planner for Albany County, did not immediately respond to Enterprise questions about this and other matters related to the county’s stance.

If it’s true that just the parcels alone being too close requires additional considerations, RIC Energy will be required to fill out an Agricultural Data Statement (the subject of the county planning board’s third citation), which the law states must include the name and address of the applicant, a description of the proposed project and location, the names and addresses of landowners within the agricultural district who have “active farm operations” within 500 feet of the “boundary of the property upon which the project is proposed,” as well as a map that shows the proposed project site “relative to the location of farm operations identified in the agricultural data statement.”

Rappe writes in his letter that, regardless of whether an agricultural data report is required, solar farms do not adversely affect farm operations.

While he does not cite any sources for this claim, the United States Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy suggests that solar farms have minimal impact when installed directly on farmland, except when specific practices such as field burning are involved, though this pertains to the preservation of the solar facility rather than the land itself, suggesting that there would be negligible impact from a farm installed in proximity to farmland.

On the road issue, Rappe states in his letter that visibility from State Route 157 would be minimal and that, after the solar farm’s three-month construction period, to begin in May, traffic to the facility will involve one trip per month.


Visual impacts

In addition to the alleged visibility from Thacher Park, the Albany County Planning board cited potential glare and visual impact to adjoining properties. 

Rappe wrote in the letter that, in addition to a general viewshed analysis conducted by the firm Wendel that determined visibility locations within a half-mile radius of the site, identifying five sites that would allow medium to low visibility, RIC conducted additional sightline analyses for three nearby residents, one of which determined no visibility, and another of which determined slight visibility. 

“It should be noted that the line of site model assumed a conservative 50-feet height of trees [between the site and the property],” Rappe wrote of the property owners susceptible to visual impact. “It is likely many of the trees providing screening are taller. The solar panels will be a maximum of 12 feet tall, and given the height of the trees, would likely not be visible from this location.”

Medium visibility was identified for the third residence, Rappe wrote; to mitigate the impact, the company agreed to provide additional screening in the form of green-colored fencing and vegetation. 


Zone compatibility

The county planning board stated as a concern that the “area of the Town proposed for the utility scale solar is of rural residential and agricultural use and has a low population density. The relation between the residential use is incompatible due to potential noise, glare, fencing and increased use of aerial utilities to support a grid scale generating facility.”

This relates also to the board’s sixth concern, regarding resident objections

Notable objectors include the Gaige family, made up of Valerie and Al Gaige, and their 21-year-old daughter, Alyssa, who has cerebral palsy.

While their concerns are broad, the Gaiges were especially anxious about how the construction and any lasting noise once the facility is operational will affect their daughter’s quality of life.

Reagan told The Enterprise this week that two new conditions were set forth by the planning board following discussions with the family outside of planning board meetings, as a well as a third stemming from meeting discussions about noise.

These conditions, Reagan said, are that:

 — Certain activities will be limited between 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.;

— The northerly 300 feet of the project that borders the lands of Robert M. Gordon, Alan Gaige, and Lori Brucker will be designated as a “special construction zone wherein no construction work may begin until 10 a.m. Additionally, Alan Gaige must be notified the night prior to any construction activity the following day;” and

—  “RIC must construct a noise barrier along the northerly portion of the project that adjoins the properties of Alan Gaige, Robert M. Gordon, and Lori E. Brucker according to design specified by RIC Energy consulting firm.”

Rappe writes in his letter that noise from the solar farm, once it’s operational, will not travel outside the bounds of the property. In January, Reagan sent The Enterprise a document put together by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, Department of Environmental Protection, and Clean Energy Center that addresses noise, among other things.

“Ground-mounted solar PV array inverters and transformers make a humming noise during daytime, when the array generates electricity,” the document reads. “At 50 to 150 feet from the boundary of the arrays, any sound from the inverters is inaudible.”

Site plans indicate that no array would be closer than 50 feet from the property line, save for one near the border of the Gaige property, by Enterprise measurements.

Al Gaige told The Enterprise this week that, while the new conditions do address the family’s concerns about noise, it’s impossible to know whether the noise barriers will work.

Valerie Gaige reiterated that they’re not certain the added conditions will block noise sufficiently, and felt the boilerplate phrasing used in official documents, which indicate there will be no “significant adverse impacts,” is too vague. 

“So we will hear a hum but it won’t be significant,” Valerie Gaige wrote in an email. “So if I want to sit outside in the summer and relax, I will hear birds chirping and a hum. OMG!”

Another concern of residents acknowledged by the county planning board was the proposed facility’s distance from an existing 2-megawatt solar farm on Old Stage and Berne-Altamont Roads, 1.5 miles from the proposed RIC site.

“The proposed project,” Rappe wrote, “is approximately one and a half miles away and not immediately adjacent ... The distance, changes in topography and vegetation create a vast separation between the sites.”

Ultimately, Rappe argued that RIC’s solar proposal is within the confines of Knox’s zoning law and that resident concerns were aired and addressed prior to the Knox Planning Board issuing its conditional approval on Jan. 14.



The Albany County Planning Board stated that, as a result of the removal of over 20 acres of forest, “potentially increased runoff is possible … causing problems with drainage and this will potentially exacerbate a known issue and cause hardship on the adjoining properties.”

Rappe acknowedged, “During the [Knox] public hearing, several commenters indicated that preexisting drainage issues have been observed during storm events from off-site sources and through the series of off-site ponds, on-site wetlands, and a culvert under Thompsons Lake Road to the Chapmans and other properties. There was concern that site activities may contribute to this condition.”

He argued, though, that the environmental review found that “current drainage patterns” would not be affected by the project.

“Per calculations in the Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP) prepared for this project,” the SEQR reads, “the finished ground surface beneath the solar panels/within the proposed perimeter fence will be seeded with a low growing grass that will be mowed at least two-times each year. This change in finished ground cover from woods to meadow results in a slight reduction of stormwater discharge (at peak times) from the site. 

“There is a stream on the site (Class C) and the project, as laid out, will not be adversely affecting this stream. There is another small drainage swale at the rear of the site (SE corner) that is not classified. This drainageway is being avoided to the maximum extent practicable, except that it will need to be culverted under the proposed access drive … Based on the above, the project will not result in any significant adverse impacts to Water Resources.”

Rappe emphasized that the stormwater pollution prevention plan “was prepared and sealed by a licensed Professional Engineer, whereas the [Albany County Planning Board’s] conclusion does not appear to be the opinion of a qualified professional.”


DEC requirements

The county planning board stated that RIC Energy is required to submit a written justification to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation as to why more than 5 acres of land must be disturbed without a phasing plan.

However, RIC Energy does have a phasing plan, illustrating four phases, two of which involve a disturbance of over 5 acres; the first phase does not require a disturbance of over five acres, and applications for a waiver are only to be submitted before the beginning of each qualifying phase, Rappe argued.

“Normally,” Rappe wrote, “a phasing plan would be submitted at the time an application is made to NYSDEC for a 5-acre waiver .… Each phase of the project would be stabilized prior to beginning the subsequent stage.”

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