Westerlo solar boom could come to a standstill until comp plan is complete

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Construction of solar arrays at Shepard Farms is nearly complete.

WESTERLO — After approving an amendment to the town’s zoning law, town board members in Westerlo say they may consider a moratorium on commercial solar arrays.

At the same time, the town is gearing up to create a comprehensive land-use plan — the first that it would enact in its zoning code.

Since Westerlo first enacted a solar law in 2017, five commercial arrays have been built in town. On Tuesday, June 4, a group of residents protested the arrays at a public hearing on the amendment.

The amendment passed, changing portions of Local Law 1 of 1989, which itself was modified in 2017 to add a section pertaining to solar.

Acting Supervisor William Bichteman said last month that the revisions will change:

— Who is required to provide an estimate of decommissioning costs from the applicant to an engineer;

— The section on escrow insurance to match a separate agreement form from the town; and

— The section on sureties and bonds because, Bichteman said, the section had several contradictory items.

Prior to the second half of the June 4 public hearing, final revisions were made that included small changes such as eliminating coverage requirements specific to the Westerlo and South Westerlo hamlets and adding a provision to prevent light pollution.

The public hearing for the amendment was continued from the May 21 session, though Bichteman said that this portion of the hearing would encompass only the reading of the State Environmental Quality Review, or SEQR.

However, residents seated in the gallery — several who were from South Westerlo — still spoke up with their concerns, which mainly involved the effect on the vistas in the town and the hazards of using battery storage systems rather than the specific amendment, which addresses decommissioning arrays.

Planning board Chairwoman Dorothy Verch later said that, since the planning board had found the battery systems to have safety issues, all the approved arrays in town had ultimately rescinded their applications to use battery systems.

Raymond Renihan, a union carpenter who says he has worked on renewable systems in places like California and Michigan, said the town had not informed the public properly by only posting legal notices in The Altamont Enterprise, the town’s official newspaper, and not publishing notices in other publications or sending out information through other means.

Resident Leonard DeGiovine said he took issue with the array built near Route 405, saying it ruined the vista.

“That’s our little Yellowstone,” he said, of the view of the Catskills.

During the public-comment period, Verch read a statement responding to resident Anita Marrone’s letter to the Enterprise editor [“I am totally apprehensive about a few people controlling our future,” May 30, 2019] about her concern of the number of solar arrays in Westerlo. (Verch also submitted her statement to run as a letter to the Enterprise editor, printed on page five of this edition.)

Verch said that the community is well-informed during the approval process of solar arrays and that the solar companies withdrew their applications to use the new battery-systems when the planning board questioned the safety of these systems.

Verch also went over the benefits of having arrays in Westerlo, such as a source of renewable energy and income through a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOT program.

In November’s election for town supervisor, Verch is running on the Republican line against Democrat Bichteman.

Bichteman said he was not against establishing a moratorium but, as acting supervisor, he does not have a vote on the town board.

Later in the meeting, the board discussed the prospect of a moratorium further. Councilman Joseph Boone, a Democrat, said he had previously voiced his concerns about battery storage and was not comfortable with what representatives from solar companies provided at planning board meetings and that he would like to look into this further.

Bichteman clarified that he was talking about commercial arrays. Boone said he was.

“No one is concerned about a rooftop solar panel, correct?” Boone asked the audience, several of whom replied “No.”

Councilwoman Amie Burnside and Councilman Richard Filkins, both Republicans, also agreed that a moratorium should be considered. Councilman Anthony Sherman, a Democrat, said he would be in favor of a moratorium on battery storage systems alone.

“A moratorium is not going to stop the arrays already approved,” he explained.

Comprehensive plan

Residents Barbara Russell and Diane Sefcik both agreed that the town should put in place a moratorium, and added that it should not be lifted until Westerlo has a comprehensive plan in place.

“There’s so many things that need to be addressed,” Bichteman said of the comprehensive plan. “It’s not just the solar part.”

The board is currently trying to find volunteers to serve as members and to chair a comprehensive planning board. Bichteman later said that there are nine applicants with résumés on file and three others he is expecting résumés from. He added that he is asking professional planner Nan Stolzenburg to provide guidance on the process.

Bichteman told The Enterprise on Thursday that there are a number of areas of the solar law that need to be looked at through a new comprehensive plan. This includes things like battery storage systems.

“There’s no downside to a moratorium at this point,” he said.

The public will be involved in creating the comprehensive plan, not just through hearings, but through sampling and surveys as well, Bichteman noted. He hopes the town will get a grant to hire professionals to help with the planning process.

Of the 12 candidates being reviewed, nine are to be selected some time after the town board’s June or July meetings to be on the board, including one chairperson.

The process then of creating a comprehensive plan — with several drafts, public hearings, and an adoption by the town board followed by a SEQR process — would probably take between a year and 18 months, said Bichteman.

Bichteman believes that there must be something in the town’s zoning law that allows the planning board to judge how suitable an array would be in Westerlo.

“The town has little to say whether it’s aesthetically pleasing or not,” he said.

Bichteman said that he is not sure if the planning board has considered protecting the town and its aesthetics rather than just seeing that the array complies with the rules currently in place. He speculated that the planning board may have rushed to complete the process.

He noted what DeGiovine had brought up, that no positive declarations were made on the SEQR for any of the five arrays. A positive declaration requires an in-depth environmental review; a negative declaration does not.

The redevelopment of the comprehensive plan could change the law so that arrays may not be approved in certain parts of the town or under certain conditions.

“That information is what directs the zoning of the town,” Bichteman said of the process of developing the comprehensive plan.

Bichteman said he has been pushing for comprehensive plan development for some time. The last comprehensive plan took five or six years, he said. A town board member at the time it was approved, Bichteman said he voted in favor of it only because he didn’t think anything better could be done at the time.

“The comprehensive plan isn’t really comprehensive,” he said.

The plan was never implemented into Westerlo’s zoning laws.

Verch said on Monday that she would support a moratorium on battery storage systems. The connection to the grid is at maximum capacity anyway, she said.

“I don’t have a problem with that,” she said.

The five solar arrays include two at Shepard Farms, managed by Borrego Solar; one owned by Constanza Solar, managed by Cypress Creek; and two managed by Clean Energy Collective, named Westerlo NY 01 and Medusa 1. Verch said that, once the arrays are set up, all five will be community solar arrays, meaning that customers can sign up to receive credit for the solar energy generated. Verch said that area residents will have “first dibs.”

Verch, who served on the last comprehensive planning committee, said that she joined the committee in the last 18 months of the process and was “trying to reinvent the wheel.” She also said that she has been pushing to have a new comprehensive plan as well.

Verch said that what she would change in the current solar law is the maximum height allowed for arrays, which is 15 feet for residential arrays and 20 feet for commercial arrays.

“So you want an array to be as high as a two-story house?” she asked. She added that most of the arrays approved are between eight and 12 feet high.

Verch did not think there is an issue in the aesthetics of the arrays approved or the planning board’s approval process. Landscaping, including the planting of pine trees around the borders of arrays like Clean Energy Collective’s Westerlo NY01, will help obscure the view, she said.

Other business

In addition, the board also:

— Approved spending up to $450,000 to replace vehicles in the town highway garage, which would be funded by a bond anticipation note;

— Appointed Jennifer Bungay as Broadband Research Committee clerk. Bungay, who is also the planning and zoning boards’ clerk, is running for town council on the Democratic line;

— Heard from Jill Henck, a town zoning board member and a planner at the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, that the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority is reviewing Westerlo’s grant application and the town must now think of what it should fund, the first priority being the highway garage roof;

— Authorized the town grant-writer to conduct a study of water-district residents in order to apply for a grant that could fund filtering the town water of bromomethane;

— Heard from Bichteman that AT&T would like to put another array on a cell tower in Westerlo; and

— Heard from Bichteman that a new payroll service and phone system have been rolled out at town hall.

More Hilltowns News

  • In addition to $1 billion invested nationwide by the federal government, New York State Senator Michelle Hinchey announced a $5 million meat processing expansion grant, which aims to empower New York residents to open up meat-processing facilities at a time when farmers are reportedly having trouble finding any.

  • The 37-acre, 5-megawatt solar project proposed by RIC Energy received conditional approval from the Knox Planning Board last month as the town board works to negotiate a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement among the company, the county, and the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District.

  • The farmers’ market, which features a wide variety of vendors from the Hilltowns and beyond, will continue to be held each Wednesday through most of October from 4 until 7 p.m. at the Helderberg Lutheran Church, in Berne. 

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