By Alice E. Gerard
Grand Island's new solar law, the first local law to be passed in 2017, could be seen as a model for other communities looking to draft solar laws, said Town Board member Beverly Kinney.
"Not too many towns had a solar law when we started working on ours. They were all working on it," Kinney said.
Kinney described the solar law as an initiative that she took. "Last February, I saw an article in the Lockport Union-Sun and Journal about the town struggling with a solar law. I thought that, since we didn't have any regulations, it was important that we address it. I started looking for other towns that might have drafted regulations. I pulled up as many drafts for as many towns to see what they were doing. I went to classes for renewable energy to get a better idea. I talked to people at Pace University in New York City, at one of the renewable energy classes that I took. The training I took was given by New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. It was titled 'Municipal Solar Policy: Zoning for Solar.' They said that we were ahead of the game. I already had a draft of the law. I gave it to the instructor, attorney Jessica Bacher, at class. She went through it, line by line, and gave suggestions."
"I also worked with Dan Spitzer, town attorney, who has done a lot of work on solar. He is very knowledgeable, and was awesome in helping," Kinney said. "Other towns are still struggling with it. We did a good job on this law. It could be put up as a model. We went through seven to eight drafts. We took a lot of people's opinions into consideration, and we made changes to make it the best we could. It is easier to try to do it right the first time than to try to amend it. It took 11 months and we got input from the Conservation Advisory Board, the Economic Development Advisory Board, and from the Planning Board. What I tried to do was to vet the law as much as I could."
At first, not everyone supported the solar law, said Town Supervisor Nathan McMurray.
"I am so delighted that the solar law passed unanimously. Not that long ago, our Town Council was trying to ask me to pass a moratorium on solar development. We went from that to creating the framework for solar business on Grand Island. The turning point was that we should support business. Today, solar employs more people than coal and gas combined. This is a substantial, growing, and real business."
Town Board member Chris Aronica described his change of heart about the solar law. "Originally, I was not big fan of putting additional restrictions on new businesses." He said that he spoke with other communities and with the Planning Board. "What changed my mind was that it (the solar law) gave the Planning Board a road map to work with. Solar is so new. This gives communities a guideline."
Kinney explained that the new law would allow for special use permits, not rezoning, for solar farms. "We don't like to spot zone. This allows town officials to discuss each proposal on a case-by-case basis."
"If we don't have a process, it is harder for businesses (planning solar farms) to get through," said Kinney. "This gives the Planning Board a guide and it gives the Town Board a guide. Every law is up for interpretation. We have one solar farm that is sitting on the sidelines, and they chose to wait until we did a law. They waited several months while we were putting together the solar farm."
The company that has expressed interest in starting a solar park is SolarPark Energy. Its plans are to build a $7.5 million, 18-acre solar farm, with an option to expand to another 40 acres on undeveloped industrial property on Lang Boulevard, which intersects with Grand Island Boulevard.
"I hope that solar farms translate into cheaper power," Aronica said. "People can buy into one of these and maybe see electrical savings. This is done all over the country. Our infrastructure in Grand Island is pretty strong. It is kind of important for the Planning Board to have something to sink their teeth into. I am feeling good about this. The communities that I talked to said the same thing. Our attorneys gave us good input. This will not restrict businesses. It may help them along the road in the form of cheaper power."
"This is a good step for Grand Island in clean energy," Kinney said. "I was really pleased to be a part of this. You have to look to the future, not just to what's going on right now. I think that, when we look at what's going on in terms of our environment, we need to protect it, and I think that this was a good step forward to doing that. From the very beginning, my goal and the goal of a lot of people is to encourage solar and clean energy, yet protect our residential areas. That's why regulations were important."