New Scotland neighbors question impact of solar farm on property value

— From Borrego Solar Systems

Borrego Solar Systems, a California-based company with a local office in Latham, is seeking to install a five-megawatt solar array on an addressless parcel of land along Altamont Road. 

NEW SCOTLAND — Richard Suker, who lives next to the now-vacant land along Altamont Road where a five-megawatt solar farm is proposed, questioned how it would affect his property’s value.

Peter TenEyck of Indian Ladder Farms wrote of the need for agricultural land to increase local food supplies in coming years.

Both of these men participated in a Nov. 24 hearing conducted remotely by the New Scotland Zoning Board of Appeals.

Questions were also raised about the effects of glare from certain points on the Helderberg escarpment.

As the zoning board seeks more information on both glare and property values, it is keeping open the hearing on the proposed large-scale, ground-mounted, solar array.

Borrego Solar Systems, a California-based company with a local office in Latham, is seeking to install 20 acres of solar panels, five megawatts — arranged in two separate arrays — on a vacant 27-acre site owned by New Scotland resident Steven Burke.

The property is located in between 215 Altamont Road and National Grid’s high-voltage transmission lines.


Variance required because of soil regs

Borrego needs an area variance from the town’s solar law so that the company can install its array on prime soils. 

The soil is classified as prime by Albany County, which makes it very difficult to have its soil maps overturned. There’s often a deferral to previous maps when looking at soils, which makes amending the old maps highly unlikely, it was said at the September meeting.

The town’s 2017 solar law says that large-scale projects are not 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.

So Borrego, rather than trying to get the county to change its soil maps, is looking for a variance, which the zoning board previously determined to be an area variance and not a use variance because the use — a solar farm — is allowed in the zoning district. ​

With nearly every large-scale solar project that has been proposed for installation in town needing a variance from law — the very one that made them possible in the first place — the New Scotland Town Board is now taking another look at its 2017 solar regulation. The law’s prime-soil and soils-of-statewide-importance provisions both make siting a solar project in town nearly impossible. 


Glare concerns

ReJean DeVaux, the project engineer from Borrego Solar, began the Nov. 24 public hearing by quickly recapping for the board what it said in the visual-and-glare analysis.

The board has been deliberate with the analysis, in part because the view from Thacher Park has been taken into consideration. Board member Dean Sommer has said in the past the board could be criticized for “forever” changing the view.

The analysis suggested “that a limited amount of glare may be seen” from the Thacher Park overlook parking lot for “a few weeks in April and again in August at 7:00 am for up to 20 minutes.” 

During the Nov. 24 meeting, DeVaux said there were no “high-potential glare” areas when trees and topography were taken into account, adding that the planning board had asked to see additional views from Beaver Dam Road, on the top of the escarpment, which Borrego didn’t anticipate would change the overall visual glare impact of the proposed project. 

The company was asked to have the additional information into the zoning board before its next meeting, on Dec. 22.


Concern about preserving farmland

During the public-comment period, just one person spoke, and the board additionally received two letters about the project — all were against the proposal. 

An email from a neighbor identified only as Irishisrsmilin911, said: “My husband and I are trying to get on the zoom for tonight’s meeting.” It went on, all in capital letters, “We strongly oppose the solar field in our backyard. You want a solar field here in New Scotland, put it in our own backyard. Not here, not Altamont Road!!!!!!”

An email from Peter Ten Eyck II began by stating the country needed to wean itself off of the fuels that create greenhouse gases, “to produce the energy needed to keep our economy running.” Solar energy, Ten Eyck wrote, “is one of several vehicles we can use to accomplish this goal.”

Both Indian Ladder Farms and Ten Eyck himself had been approached by several solar companies looking to install arrays on their land, “and the returns to us have been very tempting in the tens of thousand Dollars per year,” he wrote.

But he turned them all down, he wrote.

Part of it was out of self-interest, the idea of “not in my backyard,” but he also felt that “we should respect the ‘quality of live’ feelings of these taxpayers in the town.”

Ten Eyck also felt “there would be a hard to measure reduction in property values that would be sustained by nearby property owners…”

But Ten Eyck’s main concern was “the reduction of potential tillable farm land for the future.” 

Citing research from Cornell University and others, Ten Eyck writes “there is a collective agreement that we must increase our food supply by 50% in the next 30 years. We have to be about the business of growing some of our food in the fabric of our own communities. Security of locally grown food and a quality viewscape.”

Borrego in its permit application stated that, “gravelly silt loam,” observed as being made up of “20 percent to 30 percent gravel and some gravels, cobbles, or stones up to 4 inches in size,” was found to predominate the site. The application also “noted the site is not part of an agricultural district, which may imply it was not previously used for significant farming.”


Property values affected?

Richard Suker — whose parcel is hemmed in on two sides by the 20 acres of  addressless property to his east — said his concern was with the types of buffers that would be used. 

He said that Borrego couldn’t count on the trees in his yard being used as a buffer because they might be coming down.

Chairman Jeffrey Baker then asked Suker if he had taken the time to view the project — to go on the town’s website and look at what was being proposed — and Suker said this was the first time he was seeing it. 

DeVaux told Suker that the first solar panel would be installed 137 feet from his property line, and that there is a vegetative buffer proposed. The array is proposed to be set back 180 feet from Altamont Road. 

DeVaux also told Suker that if he were serious about taking down trees in the rear of his property, if he provided Borrego with a sketch of which trees he planned to fell, the company could possibly put up some trees on its side on the property line to continue the buffer.

Suker then said friends of his in Clifton Park had protested the installation of a solar array near them because, according to his friends, the panels would lower their property values — and if the panels would lower property values in Clifton Park, Suker reasoned, they would do the same in New Scotland. 

Planning board member Dean Sommer asked Suker if he had any proof to back up his claim. Suker said he had nothing to back up his claim other than to say that’s what his friends said during Clifton Park’s Zoning Board meeting.

DeVaux said studies of solar and property values had been performed and, generally speaking, for smaller sites, there hadn’t much impact, but even utility-scale solar, which covers tens-of-acres, has only a small effect. He said there hadn’t been a drop in property values, generally speaking, because the solar projects can be screened from view relatively well. 

DeVaux said he would provide the zoning board with a copy of the study, which he also provided to The Enterprise.

The report is a capstone research project from a group of graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin; it is “not [a] national lab publication,” it had been “submitted” for “course completion,” according to the government laboratory that collaborated with the University of Texas along with two other schools “to support student-led research on solar energy markets and economics.” 

But the authors of the study surveyed 37 residential home assessors from 23 states — none from New York — and asked about the impact on the property value of a home based on its proximity to a solar installation and the size of the array. The sizes of the installation were 1.5 megawatts, 20 megawatts, and 102 megawatts — at distances that ranged from 100 feet to three miles from the home. 

Borrego is proposing a five-megawatt array for Altamont Road. 

The assessors who responded to the UT authors “believe[d] that proximity to a solar installation ha[d] either no impact [66 percent] or a positive impact [11 percent] on home values.” However, it was also noted that the “variation in responses by size of the facility, distance from the home, and the assessor’s experience assessing near such an installation previously, all impacted those estimates.”

While the University of Texas authors relied on survey data, Corey Lang, an associate professor of natural resource economics at the University of Rhode Island, combed through 400,000 Massachusetts and Rhode Island real-estate transactions that had taken place within three miles of a solar site, between 2004 and 2019.

After attempting to control for unobserved variables that may have biased his estimates, Lang’s results suggested that, following the construction of a solar array, homes within one mile of the installation depreciated 1.7 percent. And for every tenth-of-a-mile closer a home is to an installation, its value dropped by a percentage — homes just one-tenth of a mile, 528 feet, away from an installation ended up seeing a 7-percent drop in value, but those sales accounted for fewer that 5,000 of the 400,000 examined by Lang.

But there are also studies, cited by the solar industry’s trade association, that claim to correct the “myth that solar harms property value.”

“A study conducted across Illinois determined that the value of properties within one mile increased by an average of 2 percent after the installation of a solar farm,” according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

But that cited study, which was performed by professional assessors, appears to have examined just five solar farms in five separate counties and 15 adjoining property sales. 

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