Discussion of solar electricity projects occupied most of the Saugerties town planning board’s regular meeting August 21. A public hearing was held on the Blue Stone Energy and Geronimo Energy project on Churchland Lane. The hearing was unusual for a planning board proceeding in that as many or more speakers supported the project as opposed it.
A second solar project planned for the town landfill in West Saugerties was discussed later in the meeting.
Board member Ken Goldberg provided reasons why the Geronimo project did not significantly affect the environment, including its effects on soils, wildlife, water quality and other potential environmental consequences. The finding means that the applicant would not be required to undergo a more complex environmental review.
The proposed solar farm would produce up to 19.9 megawatts of energy on a 120-acre site bounded by the Thruway on the east and Churchland Lane on the north. Approximately 100 acres would contain solar panels.
In response to a question, Derek Hasek of Blue Stone Energy/Geronimo said that the development planned no pesticide use for at least the first three years of operation, and would limit herbicides to those any propertyowner would use. They will not use Roundup-type chemicals.
Geronimo Energy, based in Minnesota, has renewable energy projects throughout the country, Hasek said. The company is developing some 45 megawatts in Ulster County, and more than 100 megawatts in New York State. Geronimo Energy, founded by a farmer, was sensitive to a project’s impact on the land, he said.
The project will bring in tax revenue to the town and school district, Hasek continued. The company has reached out to the neighborhood, knocking on doors and working with the neighbors. Geronimo will not be selling power to local residents. The large amount of power produced will require industrial customers.
Are solar farms an industrial use?
Barry Benepe said that visual impact was not “among the 16 criteria the planners listed for reaching a negative declaration [a statement of no significant environmental impact].” Benepe said he supported solar as a clean source of energy, but he felt it should be located in an industrial zone because it is an industrial process.
Joan Monastero has previously expressed concerns to the planning board and to Geronimo Energy. “We are completely opposed to 100 acres of industry in a residential zone,” she said. She described the recent change in the zoning law to permit solar installations in this zone as “misguided.” While she supported solar energy, she too felt it should be located in the industrial zone.
Alan Spivak questioned the amendment to the zoning law allowing solar installations in residential zones. He wondered why this zoning was changed for a propertyowner who does not live in Saugerties.
Property owner Philip Oconnor, who lives upstate, responded that his father was an environmentalist who pioneered windpower development in New York State. Oconnor said he bought the Churchland Lane property in April 2017. He said he supported the governor’s goal of generating half the state’s energy through renewable sources. He praised Geronimo Energy as an industry leader in clean energy.
Tiffany Sprawel, who lives across from the proposed project, supported Geronimo. “I thank you [Oconnor] for buying the property and being very selective on who you chose to buy it [actually the property is being leased],” she said. “I could have worse neighbors. I could have a condominium going in there, I could have a development going in there and I don’t. I have quiet neighbors and they are wonderful people and I support them 100 percent.”
Would housing be better?
Other neighbors cited the possible destruction of wildlife habitat if a developer built the maximum number of houses the parcel could accommodate. There’d be the prospect of more noise and traffic from a residential or commercial development. These alternatives would have much more serious environmental consequences, they said.
Several neighbors cited deer, pheasants, cranes and other animals losing habitat if the property were developed for housing. The panels would preserve the open space needed by wildlife, they said. Housing or commercial development would obliterate it.
Several in the audience cited wetlands on the property that would prevent its development for housing or industry whether or not the solar project went ahead.
Planning board consultant Dan Shuster noted that wetlands covered about 40 percent of the property. The remainder would be buildable.
Nigel Redman questioned whether Saugerties residents would benefit from the project. Hasek responded that the residents of the entire state would benefit from the overall program of renewable energy. The company would pay more taxes on the developed land than the landowner paid for vacant land. For the six to nine months of construction, there will be about 100 jobs, and the workers would buy food and probably other necessities from local merchants.
Those opposed to the project cited the loss of viewshed, particularly for those who live on Churchland Road, overlooking the project site on Churchland Lane. While the lane is level with the proposed development, Mary Ann Keelander of Churchland Road said, Churchland Road residents would lose viewshed. “I think it’s visual pollution for a lot of us,” she said.
She asked that the developers work with neighbors to make the view as attractive as possible through screening, appropriate planting or other means. While the submitted plans include landscaping on the property, Hasek saids Geronimo would be open to discussing further landscaping with neighbors.
Ingrid Loeffler of Bill Parr Drive said it was unfair to expect a propertyowner to pay taxes on land that he would not be allowed to use. “They are paying taxes just so that people who do not live next to this hundred acres can have a nice view,” she said. “That’s all well and good, but it ain’t going to get people’s taxes paid.”
In answer to a question from Ken Goldberg, Hasek explained that Oconnor had approached Geronimo Energy and suggested his property as a site. The level land and proximity to electrical interconnections were two key reasons in favor of the site.
Shuster explained that the meeting on Tuesday was not the end of the process. The board must submit plans for comment to the county planning board and approve the site plan and the necessary permits. The local meetings, held on the third Tuesday of each month, are open to the public. The audience is not permitted to speak. The next meeting is set for September 18.
Solar array at transfer station?
ELP Solar updated its plan for a solar electricity system near the town landfill at 1765 Route 212. The original plan did not leave sufficient space around the project to meet the setback requirements for a solar project. Rather than seeking a zoning variance, the applicants “decided to modify the design and continue on with the process without seeking a dimensional variance,” said Jamie Fordyce, one of the project developers.
The plans show 6600 modules of 405 watts each, for a total of 2675 megawatts of electricity.
The applicants submitted a photo taken from a vantage point above the landfill to show how the viewshed would be altered by the solar array. Wendy De Wolf, the other project developer, explained that an open space in the photo was the Woodstock landfill. The Saugerties landfill has a lesser footprint in the photo and is difficult to see from the aerial vantage point.
Referral to the county planning board and a public hearing will follow, Shuster said. The board voted to submit the plans to the county planners and to set a public hearing for the next meeting of the planning board on September 18.