Berne approves law for industrial-scale solar facilities 

Switzkill Road

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel
From a south-facing vantage point on Switzkill Road, this brush-covered hill belongs to a company that wants to build a solar array there. Canaday Hill Road runs roughly east-west, in the foreground, in front of the house.

BERNE — The Berne Town Board unanimously approved legislation at a special meeting on Dec. 17 that lays the groundwork for industrial-scale solar facilities, which will be the first permitted industrial-level use in the town.

One company, TJA Clean Energy, has already submitted a letter of intent to the town of Berne, hoping to build a solar farm on the property of 57 Canaday Hill Road, across the street from the Berne firehouse, not far from the Berne-Knox-Westerlo schools on Helderberg Trail.

The company, which is based in New Bedford, Massachusetts, could not immediately be reached for comment.

“[Industrial use] is a huge issue,” said Councilwoman Dawn Jordan, who wrote the law, and will be stepping down at the end of her term on Jan. 1, 2020. “It’s a significantly different type of construction than what’s in the town now.”

Because it’s the first law of its kind, Jordan told The Enterprise, it will serve as a precedent for future industrial-use regulations in the town of Berne. 

The law oversees the fundamental aspects of the development of industrial solar facilities, with sections regulating the application process, special-use permits, design standards, security, and decommissioning. 

The law lists its objectives as:

— “To allow Town of Berne residents, landowners, farms, and government to take advantage of solar energy resources in a way that is consistent with the nature and character of the Town in accordance with the Town of Berne Comprehensive Plan;

— “To protect and promote the farmland and agricultural economy and culture;

— “To ensure farmland and agricultural land are put to their highest and best best use;” and 

— “To protect and promote scenic and environmental resources by minimizing Industrial Scale Solar Energy Facilities’ impacts on Berne’s scenic and environmental resources as outlined in the Berne Comprehensive Plan ….”

“If you look at some solar laws in other towns,” Jordan said, “they’re basically like, ‘Come on in.’” 

But, when regulations are too lax, she explained, development can run amok and threaten the qualities of the landscape.

In August, the nearby Helderberg Hilltown of Westerlo adopted a year-long moratorium on commercial solar arrays after some residents raised objections to the large arrays installed in South Westerlo.

“I’m sure people will complain about restrictions,” Jordan said. “But we used the comprehensive plan as our basis.”

Adopted in 2017 and designed to formulate the town’s development over the next 10 to 15 years, the updated comprehensive plan states that the town of Berne is characterized by its rural atmosphere and that this atmosphere should be protected to the utmost. 

Although the comprehensive plan was Jordan’s lodestar, referenced and cited numerous times throughout the 24-page law, she acknowledged that there was a potential discrepancy in allowing industrial-scale solar facilities into the town.

“The comprehensive plan [surveys] didn’t differentiate between industrial and personal solar,” Jordan said. “But [responses from residents showed] they preferred geothermal and solar over wind energy.”

In 2017, the town’s planning board initiated the process of drafting laws to regulate solar arrays, but attempted to join both industrial-scale uses and personal uses, which Jordan said was a doomed effort. 

“You shouldn’t have small and large in the same law,” she said, “so they split them up.” 

Because Jordan had served on the planning board immediately before her election to the town board in 2015, she took up the task of crafting the industrial-specific regulations.

“I was on the planning board so I have that experience,” Jordan said. “I had the most background.”

New development

Pillar, LLC, which owns the property at 57 Canaday Hill Road, and is interested in developing a commercial solar array, is based in Massachusetts. A representative could not immediately be reached for comment. 

After receiving the letter and discussing it at the same meeting the law was passed, the town board decided to opt out of a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (known as a PILOT) provision with the company.

PILOTs are essentially tax incentives offered to businesses as a way to lower their cost of operating. But in small towns like Berne, Jordan said, that cost falls heavily on the relatively low number of taxpayers.

The majority of the money paid by the company, which at this point is uncalculated, would go to the school district, which serves most of Berne and Knox and part of Westerlo. 

To move forward, Berne needs to pass a law opting out of the PILOT agreement, per New York State regulations. 

“Essentially, when you’re doing a [payment in lieu of taxes], you’re agreeing that there’s going to be a cost to zoning and administrating that’s covered by taxpayers,” Jordan said. “The municipality does all the work.”

More Hilltowns News

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  • Anthony Esposito, who lost his house along State Route 145 in Rensselaerville when an SUV crashed into it, setting it on fire, said he had made several requests for guide rails because he had long been concerned about cars coming off the road. The New York State Department of Transportation said that it has no record of any requests.

  • Determining the median income of the Rensselaerville water district will potentially make the district eligible for more funding for district improvement projects, since it’s believed that the water district may have a lower median income than the town overall.

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