Solar farm proposed at foot of escarpment

The Enterprise — Michael Koff 

New Scotland Planning Board member Christine Galvin said, if the 27 acres of land along Altamont Road weren’t designated as prime farmland, they would be “a perfect site for a solar free-standing solar project … It’s not attractive,” and there are “huge power lines going along it.” Galvin made her remarks on Aug. 4, three weeks before the town’s zoning board met about the proposal. 

NEW SCOTLAND — Twenty acres of solar panels are being proposed for a vacant plot of land along a well-traveled road in the town of New Scotland. 

Borrego Solar Systems, a California-based company with a local office in Latham, is seeking to install a large-scale, ground-mounted, solar array on an addressless parcel of land along Altamont Road. 

The 27-acre site, owned by New Scotland resident Steven Burke, is located in between 215 Altamont Road and National Grid’s high-voltage transmission lines.

The traffic had already been taken into consideration by the planners of the five-megawatt community-solar project, with Borrego Solar proposing “very robust screening at the front of the site,” the town’s planning board was told at its July meeting. 

But a different issue was raised a month later by the zoning board of appeals, the lead agency on the project.

During the Aug. 25 zoning meeting, Chairman Jeffrey Baker brought up a point made by board member Dean Sommer: The visual-and-glare analysis submitted by Borrego had a conspicuous omission — the view from Thacher Park, which is two miles away.

Sommer said the board could be criticized for “forever” changing the view.

Baker was told by project engineer ReJean DeVaux that a Thacher Park analysis did exist; it had just been done separately from the rest of the glare study because it had been a “more complex receptor.” 

DeVaux said that an updated study with the Thacher Park analysis would be handed into the zoning board before its next meeting, currently scheduled for Sept. 22.

With such important information not in the hands of planning board members at their August meeting, Baker had thought the board needed to wait for the Thacher Park analysis to be submitted before a public hearing on the project could be set. 

In the updated visual-and-glare analysis, a copy of which was provided to The Enterprise by DeVaux, it “suggests that a limited amount of glare may be seen” from the Thacher Park Overlook parking lot for “a few weeks in April and again in August at 7:00 am for up to 20 minutes.” 

But the glare study doesn’t take into account vegetation, DeVaux told The Enterprise, like the existing row of tall pine trees on the edge of Indian Ladder Farms along Tygert Road, which also obscures the site, according to a separate photo report provided to DeVaux.

The separate line-of-sight analysis took into account the existing topography, and found “the impacts to visitors of Thacher State Park are limited given the distance, vegetation, and terrain.”

 

Soil concerns

But before shovels can be set to soil, Borrego needs an area variance from the town’s solar law so that the company can install its array on prime soils. 

When Building Inspector Jeremy Cramer looked up the land on which Borrego is proposing to place the solar array, it showed that “pretty much” about 90 percent of the site was considered prime soils, he said during the Aug. 25 zoning board meeting. Borrego Solar still filed its application, which Cramer then denied, passing it along to the zoning board for a variance. 

Denying the variance request would not preserve any prime soils, Borrego maintained in its permit application, because, when the company had an engineer perform test borings, “gravelly silt loam,” observed as being made up of “20 percent to 30 percent gravel and some gravels, cobbles, or stones up to 4 inches in size,” was found to predominate the site. 

The application also “noted the site is not part of an agricultural district, which may imply it was not previously used for significant farming.”

 But the observance of gravel only dropped the dirt down a designation, from prime soils to soils of statewide importance — which is still considered farmland — and is not allowed to be built on, according to New Scotland’s solar law.

The town’s 2017 solar law says that no large-scale projects are permitted on land that has prime soils, defined as “land that has the best combination of physical and chemical characteristics for producing food, feed, forage, fiber, and oilseed crops and that is available for these uses,” or has more than an acre of mature forest, which contains trees that are predominantly six inches in diameter or more.

The soil is classified as prime by Albany County, which makes it very difficult to have its soil maps overturned. There’s often a deferral to previous maps when looking at soils, it was said during the meeting, which makes amending the old maps highly unlikely. 

So, rather than trying to get the county to change its soil maps, Borrego Solar is looking for a variance, which the zoning board previously determined to be an area variance and not a use variance because the use — a solar farm — is allowed in the zoning district. 

DeVaux told the zoning board that, when he’s encountered prime soils or soils of statewide importance on other solar jobs throughout the state, New York has said that the specially-designated dirt just needed to be kept on the project site. 

The proposed solar array is considered a Type I Action under the state’s Environmental Quality Review Act process, meaning the project will require a coordinated review with other interested agencies — chiefly, the town’s planning board. 

The reason the zoning board is seeking lead agency status is because it is handling the most significant project approval — the area variance — and, if the zoning board denied that variance request, the proposal would not be allowed to move forward, Crystal Peck, attorney for both the planning and zoning boards, said during the Aug. 4 planning board meeting. 

Peck asked planning board members if they had any recommendations as to whether there should be any mitigating conditions or factors looked at by the zoning board because of the type of variance that is being requested by Borrego Solar.

Planning board Chairman Charles Voss told Peck, “The main focus, and the focus of their action, is impact to the prime ag soils, that’s what’s really tripping the area variance. So I would certainly recommend that they stay focused on that issue.”

Board member Christine Galvin was in general agreement with Voss, and said the 27-acre plot of land along Altamont Road would be a “great place for a solar project.”

“It’s got great buffering along the road,” she said.

“And this looks like, if it weren’t prime farmland, [it would be] a perfect site for a solar free-standing solar project,” Galvin said on Aug. 4. “It’s not attractive. There’s, as I said, huge power lines going along it, and all kinds of dumped piles of dirt ….’

More New Scotland News

  • The Voorheesville Central School District in a letter to parents said that “based on the timing of when” a person newly diagnosed with COVID-19 was “last at school, the Albany County Department of Health has indicated no need for further action, on behalf of the school, to have school community members quarantine.” 

  • The New Scotland solar law’s prime-soil and soils-of-statewide-importance provisions make siting a solar project in town nearly impossible. 

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