Knox community airs long-standing complaints at RIC solar project hearing

— Sketch from RIC Energy

This page from RIC’s application to the Knox Planning Board shows the layout of its proposed 4.4. megawatt solar farm at 1688 Thompsons Lake Road. 

KNOX — At a packed public hearing, roughly a dozen Knox residents aired their grief over RIC’s proposed 4.4 megawatt solar project at 1688 Thompsons Lake Road; its review is now in its final stages. 

The town planning board expects to vote on the proposal in July, after it receives an opinion from the Albany County Planning Board; if the county board recommends against the project, five rather than four of the town’s seven-member planning board must vote for approval if the project is to go forward.

The current proposal is a resurrection of an earlier project from RIC that may very well have been accepted by the town’s planning board had it not been for the sudden absence of one of its members, Deb Nelson, during a virtual meeting as she was set to cast her deciding vote.

As such, many of the complaints raised then are the same now, and are typical of solar projects in general. There’s concern about visibility, property values, noise, environmental impact, and the absence of any direct benefit to the town, among other things. 

Resident Eli Fanning wrote in a letter to the planning board that he believes the project is a “violation of the spirit of municipal zoning laws” because — although the project is an allowed use under the town’s zoning — it disrupts the lives of the residents nearby. 

“The whole point of buying property in this part of Knox is because they have open space, and enjoy the protection of local laws that preserve open space,” he wrote. 

Linda Novello spoke of her belief that the project will increase the water runoff her property receives — which is already substantial enough that it “almost killed my dog in the doghouse” — and that noise from construction will exacerbate her husband’s hearing loss. 

Of the air quality, she said, “We’re going to be breathing this [dust] for three months until they finish the project.”

Garry Bunzey said the project will “detract from the value of my house” because it will be visible from his property, and he doesn’t “see any way possible to mitigate that situation.” 

One couple, Valerie and Al Gaige, are fearful not just of how the project will affect their property values — Al Gaige said that he spoke with a Realtor who advised him that a solar installation would cut his property value by at least $25,000 — but of how the construction phase will affect their daughter, Aly, who has cerebral palsy and an unusually active and uncontrollable startle reflex. 

“She can’t stop these startles,” Valerie Gaige said. “I can explain to her until I’m blue in the face what it is; it doesn’t matter. If [Al] has a cold and he’s at the other end of the house and he’s sneezing or coughing, she’s jumping because it’s an unexpected noise.”

The only thing they will be able to do, Valerie said, is increase the dose of her daughter’s anxiety medication. 

“I’m being asked to drug my daughter so she can make it through these three months [of construction],” she said.

Many who spoke also questioned the value of a solar farm if trees have to be cut to make way for it, since this would, in their view, negate whatever environmental benefits there are. 

“You trade green for green for the money?” one woman asked rhetorically. 

 

RIC view

In the months since this proposal was introduced, including in a presentation that preceded the public comment portion of the May 18 hearing, RIC’s project manager, Nancy Vlahos, has attempted to address the concerns of residents by restating the specifications of the project and going over modifications the company has made in response to specific concerns. 

It appears to have had little effect, however, as residents largely disregarded the modifications. 

For instance, when Vlahos mentioned during her presentation at the public hearing that, while the project would not exacerbate (and would even improve) an existing water runoff problem in that area, the company could not control the factors outside the property that contributed to this, a woman in the audience rejected this claim by uttering a curse. 

Also, concerns had been raised about the visibility of the farm from Thacher State Park, even though RIC has argued that the terrain makes this view impossible. Although the arrays would be at a higher elevation than Thacher, even higher elevations occur between the property and the park, blocking the view. 

“My experience is that, before these projects are built, there’s a lot of unknowns, and there’s lots of fear of unknowns, and also just change — change in general,  change in landscape,” Vlahos told The Enterprise after the meeting. “It’s hard for people to imagine and visualize what it’s going to be, and they fear the worst.”

She said that usually, the end result isn’t as bad for people as they had expected, since the screening measures the company takes go further than people assume.

“The residents kind of snicker and laugh when I say this, but,” said Vlahos, once the facility is installed, “people forget that it’s there.”

The project currently meets all of the town’s various zoning restrictions, she said, and the studies that RIC has put forth on the projected impacts shouldn’t be so easily ignored since they’re all conducted by contractors who “have no stake in this.”

Vlahos also said that RIC is offering to pay to send Aly Gaige somewhere each day when there’s loud construction — which wouldn’t be every day of the three-month construction phase, since things like electrical work would be virtually silent — or, alternatively, to relocate the entire Gaige family during that time. 

“We would have to work it out with them, but we would be willing to offer to send them on a vacation or put them up in a hotel, or maybe a short-term rental, like an Airbnb or something,” she said, while acknowledging that this would likely be too complicated for the family.

“But the other option, which would probably be easier for them … is, during the week, between 10 a.m. and maybe 6 p.m., if there’s an agency or facility or something, like a day camp — just some sort of quiet environment where his daughter could go during the day, and then she comes home during the evening and she’s in her home environment,” Vlahos said. 

Al and Valerie Gaige told The Enterprise that they weren’t aware of any such offer but that it would likely not do much to help Aly, let alone address their concerns about living near a solar farm in general.

Valerie Gaige said that both options would be difficult to pull off, given her daughter’s unique needs. 

Al Gaige said that the options still mean displacing the family for something that doesn’t benefit them. 

“It just shouldn’t happen that way,” he said. 

On environmental impacts, Vlahos, who has a master’s degree in environmental science from Yale University, according to her LinkedIn profile, said that RIC — an international company founded in Spain, with a United States branch that has overseen projects in three states, according to its website — is driven by “a desire to improve the health of the planet” and that the company is not willing to do anything that would be a detriment to the environment. 

“The removal of 22 acres of trees versus providing renewable resources that don't produce greenhouse gas emissions, over the lifetime of the project, outweighs the impact of cutting down those trees,” she said. “Also, the entire town and county is very wooded, so I think the impact of 22 acres, when you look at the region or the town, is minimal.” 

More information about the project may be found at the bottom of  the Town of Knox homepage and at knoxsolarproject.com, which is managed by RIC. 

“I hope it does come through that we do care about the neighbors and we really are trying to do everything possible to address their concerns and be good neighbors as well,” Vlahos said.

More Hilltowns News

  • The Rensselaerville Post Office is expected to move to another location within the 12147 ZIP code, according to a United States Postal Service flier, and the public is invited to submit comments on the proposal by mail. 

  • Anthony Esposito, who lost his house along State Route 145 in Rensselaerville when an SUV crashed into it, setting it on fire, said he had made several requests for guide rails because he had long been concerned about cars coming off the road. The New York State Department of Transportation said that it has no record of any requests.

  • The Enterprise reported in November that the building at 1628 Helderberg Trail was falling, with some material going into the Fox Creek. The creek is considered by the New York State Department of Conservation to be a “Class C waterbody with trout spawning standards.” 

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