Changing view? Solar company plans nine-acre array next to historic inn

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

Gazing out the windows of the second-floor verandah of the historic Old Stone Inn, Marc Roman looks at the expanse of lawn just beyond his property that U.S. Solar Solutions hopes to fill with 377 solar tables, each holding 18 solar panels.

GUILDERLAND — Marc Roman and his college-age sons now mow the lawns in front of the Revolutionary War-era home he has owned for the last two years, including a large parcel that is actually beyond his property line but that forms the vista from his home.

It’s on that parcel, and extending all the way down between the woods and his swimming pool, that Guilderland’s first large-scale solar farm would sit. The project is now winding through the final stages of the town’s approval process.

The site, perched on the shoulder of the Helderberg escarpment above the village of Altamont, is most familiar to travelers on Route 156 as land adjacent to the former Father Young Center, a now-empty brick building that was built as a seminary.

“I feel history slipping away,” Roman said this week. He and his wife bought the property in anticipation of running a bed-and-breakfast inn there, just as previous owners Nancy and Bill Turner did before them. Roman doubts that guests would want to make the drive down the secluded driveway if it were lined with solar panels or to sit poolside and look at a tall chain-link fence dotted with “Warning: No Trespassing” signs.

“I don’t think that the future should come at the expense of people enjoying the present and the past,” he said.

The proposal by U.S. Solar Solutions Inc. is for a nine-acre, or two-megawatt, solar array, which would have 377 solar tables, with 18 solar panels per table, and one inverter skid. Each solar table would be nine feet tall by 18.5 feet wide and 30 feet long. The inverter skid would be 10 feet tall, 20 feet wide, and 40 feet long.

The project would involve putting in new access roads throughout the solar farm to allow access for maintenance.

U.S. Solar has an option to buy a larger, 56-acre parcel that winds behind the former Peter Young Center and into the town of Knox. This property does not include the building that served for a number of years as a halfway house and treatment center for people struggling with addiction.

“The property that the Peter Young Center is on is a different tax parcel,” said Jacqueline Coons, Guilderland’s zoning inspector.

Asked if there is more land in Guilderland on which the company could build in the future, Coons said that she thought the company has an option on a large parcel, but that most of the land situated in Guilderland would be difficult to develop.

The Guilderland Planning Board approved the two-megawatt site plan, 5 to 0, at its Sept. 14 meeting. The zoning board of appeals held its first public hearing on the matter Wednesday night, when local residents voiced concerns.

Joe Breitenbach, whose land off Route 146 backs up to the Father Young Center property, said, “It is a horrible precedent to put this kind of industrial solar array in an agricultural area.”

He talked about the speed with which technological innovations become obsolete, and said that solar panels are already being replaced by solar blacktop. Once part of the mountain is stripped of vegetation, reshaped, and fenced off, he said, “You cannot put it back; you cannot restore it to what it was.”

He also said that airplanes fly over frequently, on their way to or from Schenectady’s airport, and that little was known about the effect the glare the panels might have on pilots.

Several residents, including Patricia Blizzard of Agawam Lane, spoke about health concerns. Blizzard asked why there need to be so many warning signs posted if solar energy is as safe as energy companies would like people to believe. She mentioned fear of fire or explosions, and asked if local firefighters would be trained to fight a fire at a solar array.

The solar farm would be part of a larger 56-acre parcel that is broken up into two sections. According to documents submitted to the planning board, one section, of 35.2 acres, will include the solar farm. The other section, 20.4 acres, would remain undisturbed.


The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair
Strolling their grounds: Marc and Marianne Roman — she is an information technology manager and he is an attorney and an information security officer — bought the Old Stone Inn two years ago with the idea of turning it back into a bed-and-breakfast in a few years, after their sons graduate from college and move away from home.


Concerns from neighboring municipalities

In addition to points that residents raised at the meeting Wednesday night, Coons said, the zoning board will also take into account suggestions or questions that come from various agencies that might have an interest in the project, including the town of Knox, the village of Altamont, and the state’s Department of Transportation.

Officials in the neighboring town of Knox and the nearby village of Altamont spoke to The Enterprise about some of their concerns.

Justin Beiter, vice president of operations for U.S. Solar Solutions, suggested that the company’s plans for solar arrays go beyond the immediate proposal, into the next town. He said that U.S. Solar Solutions had originally considered building on a site three times the size of the currently proposed site, in Knox, but that, since the town of Knox was slower to adopt specific protocols on solar arrays, the company decided to start with the Guilderland property.

Knox adopted solar protocols this summer. Knox Planning Board Chairman Robert Price, who is also a member of the renewable energy-advocacy group Helderberg Community Energy, said of Beiter and U.S. Solar Solutions, “He has had zero communication with the town of Knox.”

Knox is in the midst of shepherding its first large solar farm through the planning process; that farm, being built by Borrego, is located a short distance up the hill from the U.S. Solar Solutions site, where Route 156 intersects Old Stage Road. (See related stories at

Price warned that the three-phase power lines that run from Knox down Route 156 and along Route 146 into Altamont have a “finite capability.”

Price said, “We, meaning Helderberg Community Energy, have a mole inside National Grid, and we asked them how much energy those power lines could handle, and they said they were probably adequate for four megawatts.”

He noted that the solar farm proposed by Borrego has already received approval from National Grid to “dump its two megawatts into that three-phase power line.” Price wondered if U.S. Solar Solutions knows about Borrego’s plans.

The mayor of Altamont, James Gaughan, told The Enterprise in an email that  a number of items need to be “sorted out from the village’s perspective.” He said the biggest concern is the timing and swiftness of the process. Neighbors and the local community need to “weigh in adequately, bottom line,” he said.

Gaughan wants to know more about the solar array’s placement on the property in relation to public and private utility lines, and the placement of solar panels in relation to the private property surrounding them.

He also wants to know more about the status of current and future ownership of the parcels proposed for the array — are there multiple parcels, or will there be a need to create a new parcel, with the concurrent need to establish title or right of use?

In addition, he is concerned about screening from the road and the neighbors; he suggested that a reduction in the number of panels may be necessary to prevent shadowing on the road, which is south of the array.

The village has a committee that makes recommendations on projects taken on by adjacent municipalities; its recommendations can be ignored with a supermajority vote of the board overseeing the project, Gaughan said. The village committee has not yet had a chance to make recommendations on the U.S. Solar Solutions proposals. “It’s happening too fast,” he said.

Town requirements

Guilderland recently revised its zoning ordinance to codify its regulations on solar energy, including everything from a small panel on a home’s rooftop to a large commercial solar farm. According to these regulations, individual-use solar arrays, whether rooftop or ground-mounted, are allowed in small-residential districts, as well as in rural and industrial areas.

Solar farms — arrays intended to create energy greater than can be used on-site —  are allowed in areas zoned rural/agricultural or industrial. They must be fenced and all electrical equipment labeled, with appropriate warning signage. They must be screened from adjacent properties and to minimize glare on adjacent properties and roads. They need to be tilted so as not to glare onto adjacent buildings or roads.

Solar farms cannot exceed 20 feet in height at maximum tilt. Substations and inverters need to be set back far enough to “achieve no discernible different from existing noise levels” at the property, the zoning regulations state. Any structures or equipment needs to be set back at least 100 feet from any single-family residential districts; additional setbacks can be required by the zoning or planning boards to adequately buffer adjoining properties.

The current owner of the proposed nine-acre site is listed on documents submitted to the planning board as Vesta Community Housing Development Board Inc. This company, which the website of Peter Young Housing, Industries, and Treatment lists as one of its programs, could not be reached for comment. The Peter Young Housing, Industries, and Treatment website says that Vesta “purchases and rehabilitates buildings that are rented to community service programs or low-income tenants.”

The parcel that U.S. Solar is interested in using is valued at $177,200 said Melissa Wood, a Guilderland assessment clerk.

That property does not include the former Peter Young Center building, Coons said. That building is on a separate parcel on the tax map.

Wood said that the property with the Peter Young Center building on it is owned by 820 River Street Inc. and is valued at $1,819,900.

820 River Street, Inc. is listed as another program of Peter Young Housing, Industries, and Treatment. The umbrella organization’s website says that 820 River Street, Inc. operates and maintains New York State-certified inpatient, residential, and outpatient treatment facilities and counseling and evaluation programs.

What’s next?

Coons said that Wednesday’s zoning board meeting started the process of gathering input and information. The zoning board decided to keep the public hearing period open until at least its next meeting on this issue, which it set for Nov. 16.

Asked if the zoning board will need to consult the Department of Environmental Conservation about wetlands in the area, Coons said it was up to the zoning board. She said that the applicant states that it has already delineated what little wetlands there are, but that neighbors insist that there may be more.

“I would expect that they’re going to have to do more work related to the wetlands, but at this point I don’t know what they’re going to be requested to do,” Coons said.

Beiter said that the company has been working on a plan for what it calls “the Albany solar farm” — in Guilderland and Knox — for three years, “with the sole effort of trying to fulfill your governor’s mandate.”  Andrew Cuomo’s Clean Energy Standard commitment, requiring half of the state’s electricity to come from renewable energy sources by 2030, was approved by the Public Service Commission in August.

U.S. Solar Solutions will first offer some of the green power to the town, Beiter said, and then offer the remainder on a “virtual net metering” system. Also referred to as “shared renewables,” this system allows utility customers to share the electricity output from a single power project, typically in proportion to their ownership of the shared system.

At the zoning board meeting Wednesday night, Jared Pantella, representing project engineers LaBella Associates, D.P.C., said that the project will simply produce power that U.S. Solar Solutions then sells to a power company such as National Grid, which would then be the entity to make any leasing agreements.

Town board mulls taxing green energy

At a town board meeting on Sept. 20, the board held a public hearing on whether to remove the real-property tax exemption for solar and wind energy systems and farm-waste energy systems.

Town Supervisor Peter Barber explained that, when the law granting tax exemption was passed “a couple of decades ago,” the use of solar energy was very new, and the law was meant to incentivize it. Recently, he said, the state legislature allowed towns to opt out.

Town Assessor Karen Van Wagenen advised the board on the ramifications of removing the exemption. She said that, if the exemption were removed, all structures, whether residential or commercial, would need to be taxed.

She said that many towns are unsure how to assess how much value is added to a home by installing a solar array. There isn’t adequate long-term information about it yet, she said, to know if these structures are producing enough energy to meet the residence’s needs, or if some energy is being sold back to the grid.

Van Wagenen told the board that any company that had already applied to establish a solar farm, and that had already submitted plans, as U.S. Solar Solutions has, would always be exempt. “We can’t grandfather it in,” she said.

The board decided to continue the issue for a vote on Oct. 4.

More Guilderland News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.