Guilderland looks set to keep ‘important views’ in its proposed solar law and to consider a solar overlay district 

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

The landscape in Altamont and the surrounding areas is dotted with these signs that show where Joseph Muia has proposed building a solar array adjacent to Orchard Creek Golf Course.

GUILDERLAND — Massive public protest over a proposed solar farm that could mar the view of the Helderberg escarpment — 1,300 people signed a petition — led the town to draft new solar legislation, which the petitioners feared might be undermined by recommendations from the planning board or town planner.

Tuesday night, Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber made it clear, in the midst of a public hearing on the legislation, that “important views” would be protected.

Barber responded to a number of comments the town board had received last week from the planning board chairman, Stephen Feeney, to the bill on solar arrays.

In its draft, the town board had included sections about protecting “important views”; ensuring that a project aligns with the town’s comprehensive plan, “Rural Guilderland: Open Space and Farmland Protection Plan,” the “Helderberg Escarpment Planning Guide” (by the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy), and “Clean Energy, Green Communities: A Guide to Siting Renewable Energy in the Hudson Valley” (by Scenic Hudson); as well as additional specific regulations related to decommissioning, meant to protect the town in the case of a solar-energy company going bankrupt or abandoning a project. 

Feeney had suggested in his comments that “important views” is subjective; it was unclear if he meant that the phrase should be stricken altogether or if it should simply be clarified and made more precise. He also wrote that, because the comprehensive plan and the other plans mentioned in the law are silent on the subject of solar power, they should not need to be considered. 

And in a memo to the town board dated March 3, town Planner Kenneth Kovalchik has written, “It is also my opinion the Zoning Board of Appeals should not base any recommendations of denial of solar projects based on aesthetics, visual impacts, consistency with Master Plans and decrease in property values."

He went on to discuss four examples of solar case law, and said that denying a project on the basis of these considerations could place the town at risk of an Article 78 being filed against it; Article 78 proceedings allow citizens to challenge government decisions and actions in court. 

The town began drafting changes to its solar law — a law first passed several years ago — because of the local outcry over a proposed five-megawatt project by Helios Solar on Dunnsville Road that many thought would ruin the view of the escarpment heading into the village of Altamont and would also spoil the view for golfers and brides at the adjacent Orchard Creek Golf Course, an events venue. The land where that array was proposed slopes upward toward the Helderberg escarpment. 

The proposed changes to the solar law include a section on “Visual Impact Assessment,” and state, “An assessment shall be conducted of potential visual impacts of a major solar energy system upon residential properties, public roads, known important views or vistas, and historic and cultural places.” 

They also state specifically that the visual assessment must take into account those plans, and also include a line-of-sight profile analysis and a computer-generated model of visual impacts including photo simulations of winter conditions when screening trees and shrubs are leafless.

 

Overlay district?

Two developers stood during the public hearing to say that they were in the preliminary stages of working on proposals for solar arrays in the town (see related story and map). 

One, Alex Farkes of Community Power Group, is working with the owners of a farm just off Foundry Road, at 6283 Farm Lane. Owner Gary Pruskowski said that the site is at the top of a hill and “you won’t even see it unless you’re trespassing.” 

The total property is 129 acres, and the project would be “somewhere between five and eight megawatts,” on 30 to 37 acres of land, according to the owner’s son, Loren Pruskowski. 

The Pruskowskis were concerned that, in order to move forward with a solar project, they would need to “downzone” their property. It is currently R-40, or residential with a minimum lot area of 40,000 square feet, and they were concerned they would need to seek a change in zoning to agricultural. 

“If the project stalls and doesn’t go through, my property has been devalued by two-thirds,” said Gary Pruskowski. 

Farkes asked the town board to consider the possibility of a “solar overlay district” that would allow solar arrays to be built in residential districts that are within state or county agriculutral districts and that have historically been used for farming. 

Barber said that the board had some additional time because it looks as if the current Helios application will be withdrawn and a new one submitted, for a new project on land adjacent to the current property but much less visible from the roadway. 

At the meeting, Councilwoman Laurel Bohl commented about the developer’s request for an overlay district, “I kind of see this as a way to get around the zoning code. We determine in the master plan areas that we expect to be residential, and to make a change like this would be a major change and would require more input from residents.” 

Bohl wrote to The Enterprise on Wednesday in an email, about Farkes’s suggestion of an overlay district, that “changing the law for the sole purpose of making the developer’s life easier (in circumventing the zoning code and the Comprehensive Plan) is not what we’re supposed to be doing here.” 

On Wednesday, Barber wrote in an email, about an overlay district, “At last night’s meeting, the Board asked the Town Planner to look at that possibility but agreed that the resolution of that question should not delay adoption of the new solar facility law.”

 

Wind power

Another topic raised at the town-board meeting was that of wind power. 

Kovalchik said at the meeting that the town needs to begin to think about how it wants to treat wind power, and suggested that it work together with neighboring municipalities like Knox, Berne, and Westerlo to think about other forms of alternative energy and perhaps start to come up with a law related to wind power. 

A 675-foot wind turbine in Knox or New Scotland or Westerlo would have effects on Guilderland, he said. 

Referring to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget, Kovalchik said, “We need to start thinking about regional impacts, because in my opinion this proposal really kills our home rule.” (See related story.)

“Full disclosure,” Kovalchik said: His own family is part of an Article 78 proceeding related to a towering wind turbine at the top of a hill adjacent to their 300-acre farm in Otsego County.

Jessie Robinson of Borrego Solar also said that she was working on a proposal but did not cite the location. She could not be reached by press time. 

The town board voted to continue the public hearing on the solar law to April 7. 

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