Saugerties residents question location and size of proposed solar farm

The view from the McVinish-Anderson home, with Andrew McVinish and Lauren Anderson. (photos by David Gordon)

While representative of Cypress Creek Renewables presented a rosy picture of their proposed solar-panel installation at a meeting on Tuesday, January 10 in Saugerties, several members of the audience expressed doubts about the promised benefits. These speakers conceded that solar energy offers a non-polluting source of electricity and is the wave of the future, but they contended the intersection of Old Kings Highway and Schoolhouse Road was the wrong location for it. The public information meeting was sponsored by Cypress Creek in advance of the town planning board’s public hearing on the matter this Tuesday.

Speakers cited as issues the presence of sinkholes on the property, the distance to the three-phase circuits needed for distribution of the power, and the spectacular views of the mountains at the location as reasons for selecting a different site. Cypress Creek spokesperson Anne Waling countered with photos simulations showing the view above the screening. The panels would be located to avoid the sinkholes, she said.

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The proposed two-megawatt project on land owned by David Smith would provide enough power for about 500 homes. Power would be distributed through Central Hudson’s lines, and the price would appear as a separate line on the utility’s bills. Dan Compitello, a Cypress Creek zoning manager, estimated that the cost per kilowatt hour would be 10 to 15 percent less than Central Hudson’s rate.

 

Energy source of the future

Solar power is gaining popularity in New York State partly because governor Andrew Cuomo has mandated that half the power in the state be produced through non-polluting technologies, Waling said. The company’s solar-power array would avoid some 2400 tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of the exhaust from 230 cars. At the end of the project’s projected 40-year life, the panels could be pulled up out of the ground and the field restored to its original condition.

Clay Trumpbour

While earlier panels contained toxic metals, “the kind of panels we use do not have any toxic materials in them at all,” Waling said. Since the performance of the system would be measured remotely from the company’s Santa Monica, CA center, neighbors would not be disturbed by maintenance workers. The only regular maintenance would be mowing, perhaps once a month.

The project proposed for Saugerties would occupy about 20 acres, including 17 acres of solar panels plus access roads, fencing and auxiliary equipment such as an inverter, Waling said. The company would be investing $4.3 million in the project.

A solar project would pay some $715,000 in town, county and school taxes over its expected 40-year life, Waling estimated. However, New York State offers a 15-year property-tax exemption on solar farms.

Clay Trumpbour, whose family has farmed the property, said the project represented a major change in the landscape. While he supports solar energy development, he said, he had reservations about the Cypress Creek project.

The nearest connection to three-phase electric power, required for solar power, is near the Lazy Swan, some two miles down Old Kings Highway, Trumpbour said. He estimated that the cost of connecting at this distance would be $1.3 million.

“The closest point of interconnection is right here on the corner of the property,” Waling responded, pointing it out on a map.

Trumpbour said that this point would provide only single-phase power, not suitable for the output of the solar array. Compitello said the company was working with the utility to determine the feasibility of the connection, and “we wouldn’t be at this stage of proposing this if we knew and the utility knew that it wasn’t a viable project.”

The company is looking at about two dozen projects across the state, but have not yet built any, Waling answered in response to a question.

 

How much is a view worth?

Andrew McVinish, whose property borders the proposed solar field, said the view of the mountains was one of the factors motivating him to buy his house. “Having solar energy in this part of the world, I think it’s a fantastic idea,” he said. “But having the view of that mountain range belongs to all of us – those that are living and future generations. That land was settled in 1685, and the Palatines came in 1710. It has never been industrialized. I think there is land in the county or the town of Saugerties that is much better purposed for this excellent idea.”

Trumpbour asked why none of the three historic stone houses that border the site were shown in the pictures Cypress Creek presented at the meeting and, presumably, to the planning board. His pictures, shot from nearly the same angle, clearly show these and the more modern houses bordering the field. He also referred to the many historical markers in the area, attesting that the nature of the area that should be preserved.

While “everybody actively supports a future that includes solar energy, but it’s a historical district, and there is form from the planning board about stopping the building of a cell tower that affected the view of the mountains from a historic house,” McVinish said. (The zoning board of appeals denied a variance for the tower based in part of the fact that it was not needed for voice transmission, and there is no presumption that the additional bandwidth needed for online games justified an exemption from the zoning.)

Compitello said he understood McVinish’s feelings, and as a fairly long-term resident of the area appreciated the historic values. “These are different from cell towers,” he said. “They stand twelve feet tall.”

Hanna Kisiel said she has loved watching the animals on the field from her home on Old Kings Highway and Schoolhouse Road. She could watch deer and other creatures. Why could the proposed solar farm not been placed on a section of the property away from the houses?

 

How the site was selected

Waling explained that the company had sent mailings to people around the area, but that not all expressed a willingness to have their property used for solar panels. Also, not all had the requirements of flatness and proximity to an interconnection point, she said.

Anne Waling

“These are the things that drive our development. We have to have a landowner who is interested,” she explained. “If we found what we thought was a suitable site, we probably sent that person a letter, possibly given a phone call and then waited to see who would respond. We sent out 1000 letters, maybe got 100 back. Of those 100, maybe ten looked on paper that they were okay. Then we began the interconnection process to see what was good and what might not work.” The search for a site had to take costs into account, eliminate parcels on which the project could cause environmental problems, and consider the proximity to an interconnection point. That limited the choice of potential sites, she said.

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Trumpbour asked whether Cypress Creek developers were aware that the property floods almost every year, sometimes with water as much as five feet deep. Waling said she was aware of the flooding, and it as well as the sinkholes were being taken into account. She was not aware of a conservation easement – mentioned by Trumpbour – for the grasslands.

Compitello said the company buys out tax exemptions on the land, and if the change affects taxes the company pays the difference. Solar companies are working with the state to develop regulations covering the use of exempt agricultural properties for solar-power generation.

“We also have a letter from the soil conservation agency [Ulster County Soil and Water District] that because of the sinkholes that we are advised not to use a farm tractor because there is a chance that they will cave in under the weight of the tractor,” Trumpbour said.

Compitello noted that the solar farm would enable some 500 families who want to support the environment through solar energy but could not afford to purchase their own solar arrays to have the benefits of solar power. In many cases this power is cheaper than the utility’s price, he said. “We have a preference for people close to the project, though technically anyone in the Central Hudson service area would be eligible to buy it,” he said. “We’re projecting that it [solar power] would be ten to 15 percent cheaper. The public benefit, we believe, outweighs the loss of this acreage of farmland.”

The project will be vetted by the town planning board. Environmental studies will be required. The issues of sinkholes and potential harm to wildlife, historic sites and other issues will be examined by the planners, Waling said.

Bill Trumpbour said there was a 15-year agricultural exemption on the property (an agreement to keep the land in agriculture for the life of the exemption). “I don’t think you can bust it,” he said.

“That property floods every year,” the elder Trumpbour said later in the hearing. “There’s a lot of flooding there. It fills up every year. I’ve been ice skating on it since I was nine years old.”

Clay Trumpbour said no one would see the solar farm if it were located in the section of the field screened by trees. Waling responded that she was not aware that property belongs to Smith.

Following the meeting, Brian Nowitzki, a process manager with Hudson Solar, said that his own company, though it was primarily involved with individual solar energy for homeowners, was looking at smaller versions of the proposed project. “There’s no reason they need 20 acres,” he said. “It [a solar array] could be done on one acre.”