The public has been given information on solar farms every step of the way

To the Editor:

I am responding to the letter to the Enterprise editor in the May 28 edition [“I am totally apprehensive about a few people controlling our future”].

I normally do not respond to letters to the editor but I feel compelled to defend the Westerlo Planning Board. The first solar farm application came before the board in 2017. By law, we are required to perform several functions. We are required to conduct a State Environmental Quality Review.

A solar farm is considered a Type I action and needs to be coordinated with several agencies — the Albany County Planning Board;  the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation; in some cases, the Army Corp of engineers and the Albany County Department of Transportation just to name a few. Each agency requires permits as the project moves forward.

The planning board is required by law to notify abutters by first-class mail and verification of delivery is required to be presented at the public hearing. The planning board is required by law to publish a public-hearing announcement in the official town newspaper —  The Altamont Enterprise. We also attempt to place a notice in The Pioneer as well.

The planning board is required to notify the adjacent townships as well. Each application before the planning board is required to have a public hearing. Each application is required to meet all of the points of our solar law, site-plan review, and special-use permit.

From the summer of 2017 to May 28, 2019, the planning board handled five solar-farm applications. We hired three engineering firms to assist the planning board. One of the engineering firms specialized in energy-storage systems, an area new to all of us.

In October 2018, we received notification that the approved solar farms intended to use energy-storage systems on the project. Numerous public hearings were held. Numerous opinions were given. The planning board determined that the energy-storage systems had questionable safety issues and all of the solar projects rescinded their applications for storage.

We had public hearings from the summer of 2017 to the spring of 2019! Each application was handled thoroughly and efficiently.

The board listened to pros and cons. Each applicant met all of the requirements.

At each town board meeting, I read an accounting of the planning board meetings. This is also published on the town website under planning board minutes.

So, all of the information regarding “not giving the public enough information” is totally inaccurate!

The planning board meetings are generally held on the fourth Tuesday of the month. This date is published on the website and on the town bulletin board at the town hall. Anyone can attend; it is open to the public.

Anyone who wished to become “more knowledgeable” regarding the functions of the planning board and the status of each solar farm could have attended and gained firsthand knowledge.

Education.

Since I became chair of the planning board in 2012, I have encouraged the members of the planning board to attend meetings, seminars, workshops, and webinars; in so doing, they have become the most educated planning board that Westerlo has ever seen.

We attend seminars, workshops, and webinars given by the Association of Towns, the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, the DEC, the Department of State, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

I am very proud of the members of the planning board and respect their commitment and dedication to their jobs. The four men on the board are all individual and independent thinkers. But in the end, they generally arrive at the same decision.

The training referred to is part of our continuing education so that we are always current on each aspect of the laws that govern our decisions.

Comprehensive plan.

I have been asking the town board to authorize a committee to update this plan for three years!

The town is growing and expanding in spite of the outdated local laws and comprehensive plan. Here, I would agree, immediate attention is required.

Town attorney.

The previous town attorney was requested to attend several of the public hearings (at least nine meetings!) One was attended, officially, and she sat at the table with the board.

At another one, she chose to sit in the audience next to the code enforcement officer instead of representing the planning board. The rest, there was always a conflict and she found herself unable to attend.

We now have a municipal law interim town attorney who is present at our meetings for legal direction and support.

It is important to talk about all of the benefits of the solar farms to the residents of Westerlo.

The Payment In Lieu of Taxes negotiated among the town’s assessor, the town’s attorney, and Greenville Central School District will provide needed funds to the district to defray the taxes for the Westerlo residents who live in the GCS district.

The Shepard solar project has agreed to $75,000 each year for 15 years with a 2-percent escalation. The Costanza project has agreed to over $17,000 each year for 15 years with a 2-percent escalation.

About 75 percent of those figures go to the school system; the balance will come to the town (the county did not opt in). In addition, each solar project has awarded the town a community grant of $15,000 per project (currently $45,000) to be used for the town parks.

There are two more solar projects that must negotiate a PILOT, which means more funds to defray the GCS taxes for the Westerlo residents in the GCS district.

Now let’s talk about the clean electricity that is generated by these projects. The Shepard solar projects will produce enough electricity to power 1,500 homes or businesses in Westerlo. Each solar project can power 300 to 400 residences, so the other three projects will power an additional 900 to 1,200 residences.

As these solar projects come on line, each resident will receive a flyer in the mail, announcing the name of the project and asking if they want to save money on their electricity. There will be a contract to sign so that the savings are validated and locked in.

Finally, the Shepard Solar West project is close to operational. Once it has been cleared to go on line, the project manager has offered to provide a guided tour of the project so that you get a firsthand look and description of the operation of the project. You can contact me if there is an interest in touring the solar farm.

I am hopeful that clears up some of the statements in the May 28 letter by Anita Marrone.

Dotty Verch

Chairwoman

Westerlo Planning Board

Editor’s note: Dotty Verch is running for Westerlo supervisor on the Republican line.

A state tax law provides a 15-year property tax exemption for properties with renewable energy systems, applying to the value that a system adds to the property, rather than all property taxes. Local governments can then ask commercial developers to have a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT. The exemption is in effect unless a municipality opts out of it, but the exemption will also no longer be allowed for residential arrays.

Regarding her statement about the PILOT being able to “defray the taxes for the Westerlo resident,” Dorothy Verch said that, while the taxes on these solar projects would have been much higher than what is being paid in the PILOT if the town had opted out of the PILOT program, the town would have had to tax residential solar arrays as well as possibly driving away the commercial solar companies with high taxes.

Aline Galgay, the former town attorney, did not return calls for comment.

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