Solar farm would be Guilderland’s largest

— From Borrego Solar Systems

Borrego Solar Systems, a California-based company with a local office in Latham, is seeking to install an 8.84-megawatt large-scale, ground-mounted, solar array on nearly 59 acres of land owned by JL Development, LLC.

GUILDERLAND — Months after the town of Guilderland amended its solar law in response to a public outcry over a proposed solar farm that opponents said would mar the view of the Helderberg escarpment, an array over 55-percent larger than the one proposed for Dunnsville Road is set to test the limits of some of the law’s newest provisions.

Borrego Solar Systems, a California-based company with a local office in Latham, is seeking to install an 8.84-megawatt large-scale, ground-mounted, solar array on nearly 59 acres of land owned by JL Development, LLC; the project’s address is listed as 6120 Johnston Road Rear in Guilderland but the site can only be accessed from Krumkill Road in New Scotland. 

The update process to the town’s solar law began over a year ago, in September 2019, when Joseph Muia planned to install a five-megawatt solar array with more than 10,000 solar panels on his Dunnsville Road property, which overlooks the Orchard Creek golf course. A citizens’ group, Save Our View, formed to protest the proposal and to advocate for changes in the town’s law on siting solar arrays.

In April, the Guilderland Town Board unanimously adopted the amendments to its solar law. The new law said that a major solar energy system had to undergo a visual-impact assessment that considered “residential properties, public roads, known important views or vistas, and historic and cultural places.”

It also required major solar-energy systems to have landscaping plans that show how the mechanical equipment and arrays would be screened from view “to the maximum extent practicable.”

The law also addressed noise, setbacks, fencing, utility connections — generally to be installed underground — and safety. And the law required that major solar-energy systems have a decommissioning plan.

The Guilderland Zoning Board of Appeals is the lead agency on the Borrego project but it had asked the town’s planning board to undertake a site-plan review of the proposal, which the planning board did at its Nov. 18 meeting. 

Borrego Solar is seeking variances to be able to clear-cut more trees than code allows and to have its solar panels located closer to all the neighbors’ property lines than what is currently allowed by law, which was one of the reforms included in the April amendments package to the town’s solar law.

Specifically, Borrego is requesting a variance from the town’s clear-cutting code requirements: Guilderland allows only 20,000 square feet, about half of an acre (43,560 square feet in one acre), and the applicant wants to remove 2.4 acres of trees.

In addition, Borrego is requesting a reduction in the front, side, and rear property-line setbacks: Borrego wants a 50-foot setback from the neighboring property lines — where a 150-foot setback is required for the front and side, and 200 feet is required for a rear setback. 

These were significant requests, Chairman Stephen Feeney said, because the town’s solar law had just been amended and setbacks were an issue. And now, the first application that comes in after the provisions are in place is asking for a variance from them — in addition to clearing-cutting right to the property line.

The board took issue with Borrego’s specific setback request from 6064 Johnston Road Rear.

The only reason for the clear-cutting and setback requests in that area appeared to be so Borrego can install more panels, it was said.

“It’s already eight megawatts,” Feeney said; it’s already a big facility. “To me, it seems, if you honored the 150-foot setback and planted some trees, you would significantly reduce the impact and you would reduce one of your variances — or you would eliminate the one variance [the setback] — and you’d reduce your tree-clearing by a substantial amount, I would think,” Feeney said.

Addressing Feeney’s 6064 Johnston Road Rear setback request query, Borrego Solar said, if the trees were not clear-cut to the property line, there would be significant shading on a large portion of the array.

When asked more broadly why Borrego was requesting the variances, a representative from the company told the board it’s a combination of the site being “pretty undulating,” hilly; the site being surrounded by trees; various wetlands being on the site in which trees can’t be cut down; and wetlands the company can’t build on. Finally, Borrego is permitted with the interconnection to install a certain amount of megawatts, for which it received a New York State Energy Research and Development Authority grant.

Feeney pointed out that solar panels were being installed on four designated wetlands, and the one area that’s not getting panels is designated as a wetland by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation — Borrego is trying to get permits for that, for its access road. Another wetland area is regulated by the Army Corps of Engineers, and the company is waiting to hear if the Corps says Borrego can develop it; the Corps allows solar panels to be installed on designated wetlands, it was said.

Feeney also pointed out that JL Development owns significant adjacent acreage in New Scotland and wondered why JL wasn’t putting panels on that land as well, to which the Borrego representative told him that the area is not zoned for solar. 

In May 2019, the 58.9 acres in Guilderland now proposed to have solar panels was part of a 87.5-acre town-spanning cluster-development proposal. 

Under the original plan, there was to be a 22-lot subdivision on the Guilderland side of the parcel, which would have supplied water and sewer to the New Scotland subdivision. But the number of homes Guilderland would allow to be built coupled with the amount of infrastructure the town required to be installed, made the project economically unfeasible.

Then the proposal went to public water being supplied by the neighboring town of Bethlehem and a proposal for private sewer, and the developer, Prime Companies, building on just the 28.6 acres inside New Scotland. But the project has been largely dormant since it was first proposed. 

The Guilderland Planning Board ultimately made its recommendations to the zoning board, which included that:

— Evergreen plantings be installed to screen the 12 utility poles along the driveway from Krumkill Road into the proposed solar site; 

— The 150-foot setback on the 6064 Johnston Road Rear side of the property be reconsidered, because Borrego is requesting a setback variance on every other property line; this would also reduce the tree-clearing variance; 

— The proposed tree-clearing variance be reduced; and

 — A note be clarified regarding tree-trimming.

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