Grassland bird habitat a hot issue in permitting Gardiner solar farm

“An exciting and tumultuous seven years” is how Ray Sokolov characterized his tenure on the Gardiner Planning Board as his colleagues bade him farewell at his final meeting on March 23. A veteran journalist who took over for Craig Claiborne as restaurant critic for The New York Times, Sokolov’s long career has also included stints at Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal and Natural History. “We’re going to miss his wisdom and his personality, for sure,” said Planning Board chair Paul Colucci.

Also newsworthy at that meeting was the announcement that North Mountain Road residents James Silbert and Elizabeth Horton plan to donate a portion of their property to the Mohonk Preserve – “from the base to the top of the cliff,” according to Colucci, who praised the move as “a great project.” The application for a lot-line revision is expected to come to a vote at the board’s April meeting.

However, the bulk of the meeting was devoted to continuing discussion of the application by Lumens Holdings 3, LLC, to build a commercial solar array on the 49.1-acre parcel at 262 Libertyville Road on the Gardiner/New Paltz border, adjoining the Field of Dreams sports park. Two of the documents needed by the Planning Board before undertaking State Environmental Quality Review of the application were received just prior to Tuesday’s meeting. Board consultant Andrew Millspaugh of Sterling Environmental Services said that, upon cursory examination, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO)’s archaeological report appeared to contain “no significant findings,” and that the stormwater management plan “looks like it has all the required content.”

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However, a new wrinkle in the evaluation of the project moved to the forefront of discussion. While concerns from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation that the site might contain bald eagle habitat were laid to rest, it turned out that less spectacular and endangered avian species might have a better claim on the acreage. Planning Board member Marc Moran pointed out that the Town of New Paltz has recently been considering a 535-acre tract on the New Paltz side of the town line for designation as a Critical Environmental Area (CEA).

Called Stony Kill Woods, the acreage is one of six CEAs proposed by the Town’s Environmental Conservation Board in January 2020. It overlaps with the Libertyville Road Grassland Biodiversity Area studied, mapped and described by biologists Danielle T. LaBruna and Michael W. Klemens in their Northern Wallkill Biodiversity Plan in 2007. They lauded the tract’s “high biodiversity value,” noting that they had “observed a high concentration of grassland birds here, including bobolink (Dolichonyx orizivorous), Eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna) and field sparrow (Spizella pusilla).” While not threatened or endangered, these birds were classified by LaBruna and Klemens as “development-sensitive focal species.”

“The Libertyville Grassland Biodiversity Area runs right up to the corner of this property,” Moran said. He was dubious about Lumens’ contention that the aisles of mowed grass within a solar array, and a replanted field surrounding it, would prove hospitable to grassland bird species, especially for nesting, noting, “The solar panels may block off the majority of that grassland from open sunlight.”

On behalf of the applicant, Bryan Bayer, managing environmental scientist at C & S Companies, defended Lumens Holdings’ Wildlife Management Plan as an improvement over the existing unmanaged meadow, which he characterized as “dominated by goldenrod.” “There may be a net benefit gain as a result of our management activities,” he said. “The habitat is degraded; there are invasive species…. If left alone, it would turn into early successional shrubland and wouldn’t be worth anything to nesting birds.”

Carol Richman urged that a breeding-bird study be conducted on the parcel before the board seeks to issue a negative declaration on potential environmental impacts: “As the Planning Board, we have an obligation to get real data on this – a study by biologists who specialize in this. If we do SEQR now, we’ll find a significant impact and have to do a study anyway.” Bayer objected, noting that such a study could set the application process back by many months, since it would have to be done during nesting season.

“We haven’t really identified what we want the applicant to do,” Colucci interjected. He recommended that Bayer and Millspaugh first consult together directly and try to find existing research on the impacts of solar generation projects on comparable habitats in other locales. “We’re not asking you to go out and spend any money on any study until we know what we’re looking for,” he told Lumens representative Peter McAuliffe.