Based on the input from attendees at the first public hearing on the Town of Gardiner’s proposed new Solar Law, held during the April 4 Town Board workshop meeting, the draft legislation may still need some tweaking. Only one resident, Matt Calardo, expressed strong opposition to the entire concept of allowing solar farms in the town, calling them “not appropriate for residential areas.” But several local landowners, along with commercial solar developers interested in setting up arrays in Gardiner, took exception to the provision that would forbid creating large-scale solar farms on lots of more than 20 acres.
“The maximum lot size for a Large Scale Solar Energy System is twenty (20) acres,” reads the text of the draft law, which can be read in its entirety on the Town of Gardiner municipal website at www.townofgardiner.org/laws_minutes_etc.cfm. “The maximum allowable lot coverages shall not exceed fifty percent (50%).” The law goes on to require a minimum setback of 250 feet from town roads or structures on adjoining properties, and 150 feet from all property lines.
“I would be opposed to that provision. It seems illogical… It might be appropriate to have a small solar development on a large parcel,” said Ann Whalen of Cypress Creek Renewables, a solar development company with offices in six states including New York. “If I have 50 acres of land and I want to put solar on 20, I should be able to do that.” Town Supervisor Marybeth Majestic explained that under the proposed zoning provisions, it would be necessary to subdivide off a parcel of 20 acres or less first.
Mar Kelly of New Paltz-based solar development company District Sun agreed with Whalen that the lot size restrictions would impose unnecessary hardships on large landowners. Noting that a number of local farmers had expressed interest in setting part of their property aside for solar generation, she pointed out that the text of the Solar Law as currently conceived would force them to cluster arrays “in the middle of a field,” rather than string them closer to a boundary farthest away from public view. “A setback of 150 feet could be a problem with some of the people we’re talking to,” Kelly said. “We don’t want to restrict something that could help farmers.”
Gardiner resident Jack Habersberger echoed that sentiment, saying, “There are enough restrictions already on farmers.” Councilman John Hinson said that it hadn’t been his understanding that the intent of the law was to restrict solar farms to parcels of 20 acres or smaller, and suggested that the board reconsider that parameter.
Whalen also objected to the requirement that a prospective solar developer post a performance bond of 150 percent of the estimated project cost: a provision intended to indemnify the town against having to cover the costs of decommissioning the solar array, in case of the operator’s financial failure. “We have to protect the taxpayers,” Hinson told her.
“A hundred and fifty percent is a project-killer on our end,” Whalen said. “If it only costs four million to build, it’s not going to cost six million to take it down.” She noted that in her company’s experience, a decommissioning cost of four to five percent would be “at the high end,” with a strong aftermarket and high salvage value for the metals used in a solar array, as well as the panels themselves.
One Gardiner resident in the audience raised concerns about the possibility of low-level radiation from the additional power lines that might need to be added to the area’s infrastructure to serve solar farms. “Has there been any research on the health effects of adding two megawatts of voltage?” he asked, referring to the New York State Public Service Commission’s current upper limit on generating capacity for a commercial solar farm. “People don’t want to live near high-voltage overhead lines.”
“I do not have that research available,” Majestic responded. “That’s a valid concern — something that the town board should consider.” She said that the public hearing would be kept open for at least one more meeting: “We got some valuable input this evening.” Councilwoman Laura Walls urged attendees with objections to specific provisions of the draft law to “suggest something concrete to evaluate” by putting their recommended alternative wording in writing and submitting them to the committee in care of the town clerk.