New Scotland looks to update solar law, COVID regulations

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

While not the first, the proposed large-scale solar array at foot of the escarpment along Altamont Road is the latest solar project that has the New Scotland zoning and planning boards seeking guidance from the town board about what it ultimately wants from its 2017 solar law. 

NEW SCOTLAND — With nearly every large-scale solar project that has been proposed for installation in town needing a variance from the very law that made them possible, the New Scotland Town Board is taking another look at its 2017 solar regulation.

At issue are the solar law’s prime-soil and soils-of-statewide-importance provisions, both of which make siting a solar project in town nearly impossible. 

According to the 2017 law, 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 on soils of statewide importance, “where less than 50 percent of the components in the [area] are prime but a combination of lands of prime or statewide importance is 50 percent or more of the [area] composition,” or has more than an acre of mature forest, which contains trees that are predominantly six inches in diameter or more.

During the Nov. 12 town board meeting, Councilman Daniel Leinung said that there had been “significant discussion” about the topic at recent planning and zoning board meetings, and the need for the town board to take a look at it. 

Leinung said the concern among other boards is that large-scale solar farms will continue needing variances because a “fair amount” of available land on which the projects would be installed falls under the prime soils or lands of statewide significance exception — which he said is determined by the type of soil and not the use of the land. Once the designation has been made, it’s almost impossible to have it undone, Leinung said.

Crystal Peck, attorney for both the planning and zoning boards, was present during the Nov. 12 meeting and also weighed in on the topic.

Peck began by saying that the prime-soil and soils-of-statewide-importance issues are not exclusive to the proposed solar farm at the foot of the escarpment; nearly every large-scale proposal that has come before a town board “has involved prime soils in some way,” she said.

The proposed solar array at the foot of the escarpment along Altamont Road is set for a zoning board public hearing on Nov. 24. 

The planning board gave the proposed solar farm a negative referral, based largely on the prime-soil and soils-of-statewide-importance language in the town’s solar law — the board had otherwise been in favor of the proposal. 

Summarizing the planning and zoning boards’ questions, concerns, and issues for the town board regarding solar installations, Peck said that the planning board in particular is wondering what the town board wants in terms of  large-scale solar arrays: 

— Does the town board want to essentially not allow them at all on these soils; 

— Does it want to allow for the opportunity for the projects to be proposed on the soils;

—  Even the definitions of “prime soils” and “soils of statewide importance” are a little difficult to work with because land could contain one type of soil but not the other, which is happening on nearly every application;

— Does the town board want to see solar arrays in New Scotland; is it really trying to promote them; or is it more concerned with protecting the future use of the prime soils — because the applications that are coming in are not active farms and have not been actively farmed in a number of years.

So the question becomes, Peck said: Is the town board concerned about protecting active farms or farms that have a recent history of farming, or anything that has potential to be prime agricultural land?

Jeffrey Baker, the chairman of the zoning board, was also present at the virtual meeting and made a salient point about the town’s solar law. 

In terms of process, Baker said, the general rule is: If every application that is coming before the planning or zoning board requires a variance, then there’s something wrong with the law. 

Supervisor Douglas LaGrange said the board, with Leinung as the lead, would start to make some proposed changes to the town’s solar law. 

 

COVID-19

During the Nov. 12 meeting, LaGrange said there has been a recent uptick in positive COVID-19 cases in town. This is in keeping with a county-wide trend as this past week, Albany County has had higher daily numbers for new cases than during the previous apex last spring.

On Nov. 11, New Scotland had nine positive cases, which was up from four on Nov. 8, while the number of people in quarantine went from 18 on Nov. 8 to 28 on Nov. 11. 

The numbers were starting to look like they did during the height of the pandemic, back in the April, LaGrange said. 

It was LaGrange’s “inclination” to once again shut down town hall to the public and allow people to come into the building only if they have an appointment. New Scotland Town Hall had been closed to the public from mid-March to June 15.

“People are going to have to understand, there’s going to be some caution exercised for these numbers that are coming out. I mean these numbers, it’s not just nationally, there’s an incredible uptick [locally], I think there were 11 restaurants that were shut down for the immediate time because each one had a positive case from an employee,” LaGrange said.

Leinung pointed out that a restaurant in New Scotland had done the same.

On Nov. 11, Track 32 in Feura Bush posted on its Facebook page, “We just had an employee test positive to COVID-19. Effective Immediately, Track 32 will be closing for a short period of time.” According to the restaurant, a kitchen employee, who worked on Nov. 5, 4, 6, and 7 had tested positive for the virus. 

As of Nov. 16, the restaurant still appeared to be closed. 

No one answered the restaurant phone on Monday afternoon and the voicemail was full, so a message could not be left; a Facebook message was not returned; and an email was kicked back because the user’s mailbox was full. 

The town board decided it would take up the COVID-closure issue at its now nearly-weekly special COVID meeting, set for Friday, Nov. 20, at 1 p.m.

 

Other business

In other business, the town board:

— Adopted, 4 to 0, an $8.49 million budget for 2021, Councilwoman Bridgit Burke was absent from the meeting. The spending plan for next year is up 3.2 percent from this year’s budget but down from what the town originally proposed in October.

For 2021, the tax rate for all New Scotland property owners (including those who live in the village of Voorheesville) is to be $1.52 per $1,000 of assessed value, up from $1.48 per $1,000 this year;

— Extended the public hearing on amending the town’s light law until the board’s next meeting, on Dec. 9; 

— Set a Dec. 9 public hearing at 6:15 p.m., to allow for a frisbee golf course to be installed at Swift Road Park.

During the Nov. 12 board meeting, Ken Guyer, the town’s highway superintendent, said that the majority of the proposed frisbee golf course would be located in the treeline surrounding the park — so as not to interfere with everyone else enjoying the park.

There will be no cost to the town, “the frisbee-golf community” would raise the money for the equipment needed, Guyer said, and would also perform the equipment installation; and 

— Approved $50,000 for preliminary design of Clarksville sidewalks project.

More New Scotland News

  • After examining 400,000 real-estate transactions, a report found that, following the construction of a solar array, homes within one mile of the installation depreciated 1.7 percent. And homes just one-tenth of a mile, 528 feet, away from an installation ended up seeing a 7-percent drop in value.

  • The Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy had set an ambitious $1.2 million fund-raising goal, which it exceeded when loans and grants were taken into account, to purchase the historic farm, but the not-for-profit’s director, Mark King, declined to say how much the conservancy paid for the 198-acre property at the corner of routes 85 and 85A in New Scotland.

  • The employee, who works at New Scotland Town Hall, was notified mid-morning of Monday, Nov. 30, that he had tested positive for the virus. He was last in the building on Nov. 25.

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