Town board should listen to public on importance of preserving Helderberg viewshed

To the Editor:

By this printing of The Enterprise, a draft version of the amendments to the Town Code Chapter 280 regarding solar installations will have been discussed by the Guilderland Town Board at its Tuesday, March 3 meeting. The proposed amendments were drafted a few weeks ago by the town board, motivated in large part by many legitimate concerns raised by the public about the siting of a solar project adjacent to the Orchard Creek Golf course on property owned by Joseph Muia.

These new regulations are very important. Nearly a dozen 5-megawatt projects are in the queue for consideration by the New York Public Service Commission and are located west of the railroad tracks on Route 20. All of them are proposed to be connected to the Altamont substation circuits on Route 146 as of Feb. 26, 2020.  Guilderland needs to be prepared as these proposals are considered.

In this current matter, despite the public’s concerns, the Guilderland Planning Board has raised a significant issue with the amendments at its recent meeting last week, mainly suggesting that the references to not putting solar farms in areas of iconic scenic, environmental, historical, or cultural areas be deleted because such references are “too subjective” and that the comprehensive plan and other reference documents were “silent” on solar and could not be relied upon for “guidance.”

Hopefully, the town board opposed the planning board chairman’s opinion that an “iconic view” is too subjective and therefore doesn’t provide enough guidance. I don't believe that the comprehensive plan provides the guidance on setbacks footage, or specific detailed mitigation interventions, for example, but the planning board saw fit to insert these metrics into the existing code to accommodate their view of what was approvable.

They should be able to respond to the community's concerns about the viewshed and make the effort to put language into the new code to address these concerns.

From our experience with Helios, the applicant for the proposed installation adjacent to the Orchard Creek Golf course, we learned that the solar company was relying on the landowner to inform Helios of any local issues. Helios didn’t know that the property was next to a golf course, that the connectors would be directly across from a homeowner, or that the view was important to the community. We need to rely on the planning board to represent us in these situations.

Other municipalities have been able to make decisions on this particular issue. Apparently the Guilderland Planning Board has a lot of influence in this matter, despite the fact that the public has contested this point with good arguments and suggested ways to draft these provisions so that these important areas of Guilderland are protected. I hope these opinions were given serious consideration at the town board meeting.

The language that was suggested by a member of “Save Our View” about this main focus is as follows:

[4] Any application for a special-use permit for a major solar facility in, on, or near parklands, trails, wildlife preserves, the Helderberg Escarpment viewshed, historical or cultural sites, and/or areas reserved for public recreational activities, that negatively affects such areas to the extent that mitigation is either ineffective or impractical, shall be denied.

This language is inclusive and admits to the possibility of inadequate mitigation that is not addressed in this manner in the proposed amendments.

I am concerned that the suggestions the public has submitted previously already may not count because the chairman of the planning board is unable to resolve the issue of evaluating a viewshed and its importance to the neighborhood and citizens throughout the community.

The public has submitted significant input on this issue already but should they be expected to show up in numbers time after time as if each event is starting from scratch, with no evidence that attention to what has already been submitted has taken place. I have heard of feedback from some elected officials. I would have liked to see more active involvement on this aspect of the solar debate from all of the board members to have some inkling of their views before the meeting.

One last point — the town board has not provided copies of or acknowledged the type or extent of public input already submitted to the town board, which, if disclosed, would let us know what has been submitted for our elected representatives’ consideration.

I think we should be concerned that, absent a clear understanding of what the community has raised, we cannot accurately assess the validity of decisions made by the Guilderland Town Board. That is why I fear that the planning board’s views might take precedence despite all that we have raised.

Do the town board members make decisions on the preponderance of evidence or by some other method?  Lacking such information, I guess our only choice is raising our voices over and over.

All that frustration being said about the decision-making process, I do hope everyone who could showed up at the town board meeting and made their opinions known. That’s the way the model of public input works. In my opinion, the suggestions for language about evaluating the viewshed are very good and should be included and reinforced in the final zoning amendments.

I think, in general, common-sense explanations about the decision-making process and the possible rejection of suggestions on the viewshed also should be argued in public in a simple, straightforward way.

If, for example, mitigation measures are the preferred solutions and they simply do not work, then a project should be rejected. There needs to be specific wording in the code that will deny a special-use permit, or we will be right back to the initial flawed logic of the planning board.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? At least 1,300 local people who signed online and paper petitions disagree with the planning board. Isn’t that worth anything? What better evidence than these many people’s opinions?  Are they worth nothing against one person’s opinion? Something is wrong with this picture.

I hope everyone who is concerned with the siting of solar farms went to the public hearing and expressed their concerns on this issue involving the proposed draft amendments. I hope I read in this week’s Enterprise that they were listened to.

James Gaughan


Editor’s note: James Gaughan was Altamont’s mayor from 2005 to 2017.

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