Altamont says ‘no’ to plans for solar farm in Guilderland

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Confab: After Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor James Gaughan, left, listens to residents who live near the proposed solar-farm site and were pleased with the board’s recommendation against it. Directly behind Gaughan, Marc Roman shows Charles Gardner paperwork while in front of Gaughan, their backs to the camera, Fay Gardner, left, talks to the mayor and Kathy Johnson, right, listens. Patricia Blizzard smiles at what she hears.

ALTAMONT — By unanimous vote on Tuesday, the village board recommended the application for a solar farm on its border be disapproved.

This action delighted the half-dozen residents in the gallery who live near the proposed site, perched on the shoulder of the Helderberg escarpment above Altamont.

But a vice president of the company developing the array called the community’s response selfish, not looking toward America’s future.

The application by U.S. Solar Solutions Inc., a company based in California, is for a nine-acre, two-megawatt solar array on a 60-acre parcel. The property, off of Route 156, known as the Berne-Altamont Road, is in the town of Guilderland. The Guilderland Zoning Board of Appeals is the lead agency for the application, as the Altamont board on Tuesday declined an offer from Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber to be lead agency.

The reason the village has any say on a project outside of its boundaries is because of a 2006 law that allows it to make recommendations on projects on its periphery. Projects are evaluated by a Referral Committee made up of the mayor, a trustee, the chairs of the village’s zoning and planning boards, and a representative from the village’s department of public works. The post for a citizen representative is currently vacant.

Of the 26 projects the committee has commented on since the law was enacted, “We pretty much approved every one,” Mayor James Gaughan told The Enterprise.

Tuesday’s disapproval means that four out the five Guilderland zoning board members, a supermajority, will have to approve the application if it is to go forward; normally, a simple majority vote is needed.

Justin Beiter, vice president of operations for U.S. Solar Solutions, told The Enterprise on Wednesday, “Everything has been tabled in Guilderland until the next meeting.” He was referencing the Guilderland zoning board meeting on Nov. 16.

Beiter said he was taken aback by the response from the group of neighbors who came to the Sept. 21 zoning board meeting.

Beiter said earlier that his company would offer power it generates to the town first and then offer the rest on a virtual net metering system, allowing utility customers to share the electricity from the project in proportion to their ownership of the system.

“Coal-fired plants are ruining our rivers and ruining our air,” Beiter said on Wednesday. “We’re doing what the governor wants us to do.” 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.

“You have a community that doesn’t believe in it,” said Beiter, calling it selfish. “It’s not thinking of the future, of young Americans.”

Beiter said his company has invested a lot in the project. “We re-designed five times over three years to meet new solar law,” he said.

He also said the company’s plan had been to lease the former, now-vacant Father Young Center, built as a seminary, on Route 156 near the proposed solar farm as a “solar school to teach young New Yorkers how to build solar power plants.”

He added, “There’s not a lot of jobs out there…We’d take them out to the farms, teach them about the industry and solar installation.”

Beiter also said he had been in the business in 2001 and asserted, “Every state I’ve been in, we’ve had to educate people that it’s not dangerous; it’s not an eyesore.”

Village view

Gaughan told The Enterprise three key factors led to the Referral Committee’s recommendation. “First, it’s deficient in its current state,” he said. Second, he said, there are important inaccuracies in the application.

And finally, Gaughan said, “The placement of such an array at the entry to our village doesn’t fit our comprehensive plan.”

He went on to describe the philosophy behind the village’s master plan, drafted in 2007 and codified into law in 2009. “There was a belief by the people that developed it that the apron around the village shouldn’t be encroached upon with industry and business…One of our paramount beliefs is the treasuring of our culture and history, our streetscapes,” he said of Altamont.

Gaughan concluded, “It’s not Disney or Norman Rockwell, but it’s what our village residents want.” Referring to Altamont’s newly appointed, young trustee, Madeline LaMountain, the mayor said, “Madeline embodies it; she wants that small-town feel.”

After Tuesday’s meeting, residents who live near the proposed site for the solar farm said they were pleased the village board voted against it. Marc Roman, who with his wife, Marianne, owns the Revolutionary-War era Old Stone Inn abutting the now-vacant property where the array would be built, told The Enterprise, “We’re pleased with the village’s recognition of our concerns.” He added, “We’ve only known about this for two weeks; the company has had two to three years.”

On Sept. 21, the Romans had submitted to the zoning board a 10-page footnoted document with six exhibits attached, stating that the solar farm would  “irrevocably destroy the economic potential of our property as a historic-themed bed and breakfast.” They purchased the property in 2014 for $544,000.

The Romans also state that the solar farm, a commercial use of the land, is in contrast to the stated purpose of RA5-zoned districts, which is to “ensure an economic and physical environment for agricultural use of land.” Further, the Romans say unreported wetlands exist on the property as well as “a robust population of visible indigenous wildlife communities.”

Kathy Johnson who lives across the street from the site said she, too, was pleased with the board’s disapproval of the project.

“We don’t need it,” said Fay Gardener who lives at 3 Agawam Lane with her husband, Charles. “Altamont has a wonderful police department, fire department, and rescue squad. If something happened up there, they would have to risk their lives, getting over the fences.”

Patricia Blizzard, who lives at 24 Agawam Lane with her husband, William, said the solar farm would “take away from the beauty of the road.”

She said she was worried about radiation from the panels, and that erosion or an earthquake — there have been several in the Hilltowns — could cause the panels to shift. She is also concerned that the solar array near her home would decrease the value of her property.

Referring to the village officials, Blizzard concluded, “I think the people here really did their homework…I hope the zoning board listens.”

Committee’s concerns

Earlier this year, Guilderland revised its zoning ordinance to codify regulations on solar energy. The Referral Committee keyed its responses to Guilderland’s law. It recommended that, if the project were to proceed, a full environmental impact statement be required.

Following is a summary of the committee’s concerns with responses from Beiter. Beiter answered the questions on Wednesday, stressing, “We hire engineers to answer questions like these. I’ll answer to the best of my ability.”

— On the compatibility of land uses, the committee said the “keyhole driveway” to the Old Stone Inn operates under an easement and “a legal determination about its use needs to be clarified.” Also, the committee said, the portion of land to be used for the solar farm seems to be a higher percentage of the available land than specified.

“I believe the roadway was going to be redesigned to accommodate the plan,” said Beiter. “Based on Guilderland’s new solar policy, we redesigned the plant to fit their requirements.”

— On traffic, the committee said that screening the array from the road and from neighbors “has to be carefully calibrated.”

“All concerns the township has had have been addressed by engineers and, if there are further concerns, we’d address that,” Beiter said. “We could raise the berm or add more shrubbery.” Responding to a statement in an earlier Enterprise story, he added, “There will be no 10-foot high metal fence. Any fence will be hidden behind shrubbery.”

— On the project’s impact on the village, the committee said the Old Stone Inn benefits Altamont businesses and enhances local history. The solar farm would provide no direct benefit to Altamont and current exemptions prohibit any tax revenues, the committee said.

Beiter said he thought his company would be paying taxes on the Guilderland plant. The town of Guilderland is set to decide on Dec. 6 whether to remove the current tax exemption on solar and wind plants.

— On protection of community character, the committee said that panel placement “seems excessive for the property size” and noted commercial use of the land contrasts with the stated purpose of RA5-zoned districts.

“Two megawatts is relatively small,” said Beiter. “The plant was designed based on the town’s new requirements.  We first planned to do six megawatts in Guilderland and six megawatts in Knox. We dramatically reduced the size, by two-thirds, to meet the new requirement.”

— On drainage, the committee said the project’s impact on agricultural land and on wetlands needs further investigation.

“All these studies were done,” said Beiter. “We delineated the wetlands and diagrammed storm runoff and submitted it to the town; they did not have any problems with it.”

— On community facilities, the committee said that fire-district coverage includes the Altamont Fire Department and not just Guilderland Center’s department as the application indicates. “The array will have no access to Altamont water utility lines,” it says.

Beiter believes that the solar farm will pose no fire threat and therefore not need emergency services. “Glass panels aren’t flammable,” he said. “The inverter will be placed on a concrete pad with no trees or shrubs around.”

— On municipal development policies, the committee says that the project runs counter to Altamont’s comprehensive plan “regarding its cultural and historical significance and its uniqueness in the western rural part of Guilderland” and also says it is not clear why the lead agency is not considering the application as a variance rather just as a special-use permit.

“The town told us we needed to go for a special-use permit based on its new solar law so that’s what we did,” said Beiter, adding, “We’re trying to put up a green plant to return the green woodlands to upstate New York. Acid rain from coal-burning plants is much more harmful.”

— On other matters, the committee says it’s not clear whether there are multiple parcels being used for the project and recommends, “Clear title or right of use of proposed parcels, including property owned by the town of Guilderland needs to be established.”

Beiter said his company will have “two separate deeds” —one for a solar farm in Guilderland and one for a nearby solar farm in Knox. A third nearby parcel, with the former Father Young Center and the surrounding acreage, will remain with Vesta Properties, Beiter said; that is where Beiter said a “solar school” was planned.

The committee also says that, with plans for a solar farm further up Route 156 in Knox, National Grid has already approved two megawatts for the three-phase power line running along the state route.

Beiter responded that, while National Grid had assigned Borrego two megawatts for its project off Route 156 in Knox, National Grid had also assigned U.S. Solar Solutions two megawatts for its project in Guilderland and another two megawatts for its project in Knox.

Finally, the committee says claims of possible health impacts on neighboring residents need to be addressed.

“There are no health impacts,” said Beiter. “There are no electromagnetic pulses off of the solar panels.” He contrasted this to the danger of standing under a high-tension electrical wire.

Other business

In other business, the village board:

— Heard from Trustee LaMountain that plans for the inaugural Fall Festival, on Oct. 22, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Orsini Park, are “going well.” She said 26 local vendors will participate and food will be supplied by Hungerford Market and Uncle Jimmy’s Market.

She also said there will be many kids’ activities — all free;

— Heard from Main Street resident Robert Rabbin concerns about Stewart’s plans for the two-family home it recently purchased adjacent to its Altamont store. Building Inspector Glenn Hebert said Stewart’s had applied for an “interior renovation” of the property but not for demolition.

Hebert also said, “In our code, any demolition must go through the planning commission process; it requires site-plan review with landscaping, paving, the whole nine yards”;

— Approved a request for village water from David and Nedra Werling at 768 Route 146. The capital charge for the new service connection to the water is $2,500. The customer is to connect to the existing curb-box; if the curb-box is defective, the Werlings may have to connect to the main at their expense;

—Authorized Superintendent of Public Works Jeffrey Moller to terminate water service to delinquent non-residents Joel Dowling at 933 Altamont-Voorheesville Rd. and Theodore Danz at 241 Brandle Rd. on Oct. 11 if payment is not received;

— Applauded Colynn Tubbs of Guilderland after approving him as a junior firefighter in the Altamont Fire Department;

— Accepted with regret the Deborah Hext’s resignation as the planning board’s alternate member, effective Sept. 27.

Gaughan noted that was a second open position — the other being as a citizen representative on the Referral Committee — in need of a volunteer; and

— Accepted with regret the resignation of Shirley Morey who drove the van to transport Altamont Seniors, effective Oct. 3. Gaughan urged anyone interested in the part-time job to contact village Clerk Patty Blackwood.

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