Zone for the future while protecting the past

We wrote last week about the first applicant for a solar farm under Guilderland’s new zoning law withdrawing its application.

“We’ll focus on Knox,” Justin Beiter, vice president of operations for U.S. Solutions, told us, referring to the rural town neighboring suburban Guilderland. “The town of Knox seems more positive on solar.”

U.S. Solutions, based in California, had planned to build a nine-acre, two-megawatt solar array on a 60-acre parcel off of Route 156; the solar farm would have perched on the shoulder of the Helderberg escarpment just above the village of Altamont.

And, it would have been right next to the Old Stone Inn, a Revolutionary War-era building, beautifully maintained in its historic setting.

As we covered the issue in a series of stories we understood the frustrations on both sides.

As Beiter told us, U.S. Solutions had spent a lot of time and money meeting the requirements set out in Guilderland’s new zoning ordinance for solar. For months, U.S. Solutions had worked with town officials, cutting the project by two-thirds to meet the requirements for buffering.

Then, as the company thought the project was nearing approval, there was a negative recommendation from the village of Altamont and objections raised by the neighbors.

From Beiter’s point of view, he was helping the town — since Guilderland would have been able to use the solar power — as well as helping to meet the state’s requirements of having half of New York’s electricity coming from renewable energy sources by 2030.

He told us of a solar school the company planned to start near the Guilderland solar farm to educate New Yorkers and lead to needed jobs. He also dismissed concerns about health hazards from solar as unfounded.

Beiter is passionate about solar and saw those who objected as selfish.

We, too, see the importance of alternative energy before our Earth is destroyed.

But we did not see the village or the neighbors who objected as selfish. We understood that they were protecting a sense of place and history that is important.

Jeff Perlee wrote us a letter that went beyond just the obvious historical importance of the Old Stone Inn. He described the palatial summer homes — many of them still standing — built on the shoulder of the Helderbergs above Altamont in the late 19th Century, tying those buildings in with both state and national history.

Perlee wrote of the proposed solar farm, “This facility would be constructed smack in the middle of one of our town’s most bucolic and historically significant areas. The proposed facility represents a significant challenge to our ability to preserve our community’s rich, but endangered natural environment. Amazingly, the facility would be located directly on the property that initially gave rise to Altamont’s original Victorian Summer Colony, a nationally recognized historic area.”

The mayor of Altamont, James Gaughan, in explaining the village’s recommendation against the plan, said, “Altamont, small as it is, has a treasured culture and history that is part of its appeal. The solar farm as presented didn’t fit.”

Indeed, Altamont’s literal identity — its very name — is linked to the bucolic landscape that attracted the Victorian Summer Colony.  As Perlee points out, Lucy Cassidy, widow of the publisher of the Albany Argus, the state’s leading Democratic paper at the time, lived in the Summer Colony and suggested that the village take the name Altamont.

“That suggestion was acted upon in 1890 by her friend in the White House, President Grover Cleveland,” Perlee wrote.

So, is it phony to say, yes, we want solar, it is essential for the survival of our planet, but, no, we don’t want it here?

No, because there are plenty of places in town where it would make sense. The industrial park leaps immediately to mind. The town’s new zoning allows solar farms not just in areas zoned for industrial use but also in areas zoned for agriculture, as is the Summer Colony site.

Guilderland’s supervisor, Peter Barber, was an architect of the town’s new zoning ordinance, having served for years as chairman of its zoning board.

Barber told us last week that a withdrawal in the midst of an application for a special-use permit was not unusual and he sees no problems with the town’s new zoning.

“The old code did not regulate solar,” he said. “The new code permits solar farms in rural agricultural districts but with aggressive setbacks.”

Barber does not think solar arrays are incompatible with a rural landscape. “I see a lot of them in Vermont,” he said, noting that is a state with “a population sensitive to the environment.”

As the polar ice caps melt; as drastic storms and floods increase with climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels; as sea levels rise, even obliterating islands; as acid rain wreaks havoc on plants and animals, we may, as a society, have to adjust to the look of solar arrays.

And certainly setback requirements can shield them from our view.

But we would also be wise to recognize if a particular landscape is worth preserving. We believe this one is. And we should act before it disappears.

The most direct way to do that is to follow the example of John Boyd Thacher, the Albany mayor with a mansion in the Summer Colony — buy the land to preserve it. Thacher’s foresight, combined with the generosity of his widow, gave us the state park that bears his name and borders the Summer Colony property in the Helderbergs.

The wealth it would take to do that is beyond the reach of any individual currently in our midst. But collectively, we can protect the land with a simple planning tool — an historic overlay district.

Such a district offers particular protections — to be defined by the town — for a piece of property the community considers important.

An historic overlay district would benefit not just the near neighbors but residents both below and atop the escarpment who value the view. That view helps drive the economy of the Hilltowns as well as the villages and towns below the escarpment, bringing visitors that flock to the area because of its beauty much the way it attracted the wealthy city folk who first built the Summer Colony well over a century ago.

Such a designation is also business-friendly in another way. If the Summer Colony land stays zoned as it is now, it is just a matter of time before another company sets out to develop it.

It is unfair to a company like U.S. Solutions to have it invest valuable resources — time and money — in a project that may ultimately be voted down.

We need to embrace solar. We need to have the companies that will build arrays spend their energies where they are wanted. Our future depends on it.

Let’s learn from this. Let’s adopt an overlay district that will protect valuable history while making clear the places that will look to the future so that we survive as a people, allowing us to appreciate our history.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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