By Larry Austin
Island Dispatch Editor
Residents on Whitehaven Road threw shade on a proposed solar power project proposed for their neighborhood.
At a public hearing before the Grand Island Town Board Monday, residents had their opportunity to voice their opinions on a special use permit application and solar array project planned for 42 acres of privately-owned land west of Stony Point Road between Bedell and Whitehaven roads near a power line and substation. Solar Farm Energy LLC is eyeballing the parcel to install a ground-mounted solar farm.
Opponents of the project said the solar project isn't as green as it's cracked up to be. They claimed its construction would be detrimental to wildlife and feared its would require cutting down white oaks to reduce shade. Several residents objected to siting a power plant in a residential neighborhood, with one threatening a lawsuit if the board approves the project.
Tom Guzek, managing general partner of Solarpark Energy, a Saratoga Springs company that makes community solar projects, spoke on behalf of the applicants. He said the state has a "very large commitment" to build community solar projects throughout New York. The governor has "a vision" by 2030 of having 50 percent of the energy in the state provided by renewable energy projects, he said.
"In order to do this, you have to do solar," Guzek said.
Guzek delineated numerous benefits to the community of the solar project:
•It would lock in the current energy pricing for years and provide for customers "incremental savings as the utility raises rates."
•Solar reduces pollution and produces no greenhouse gases.
•The project would come at no additional cost to the town, but rather would provide payments to the town in lieu of taxes.
•The 5mw AC project would produce enough juice to approximately power 1,200 homes or small businesses.
Residents who live near the property eyed for the solar power plant didn't see the project in such glowing light.
Robert Fraser said he and his mother, who live on Whitehaven Road, "strongly object to the installation of a solar array project on the Whitehaven property. This project will result in a devaluation of our property."
He claimed the climate in the area did not have enough sunshine to "produce beneficial energy results" for the solar power plant.
"What proof do we have that it will work as well as they say? There is proof in other places that solar projects have been failures. These projects are still experimental and may be a waste of money," Fraser said.
Dave Reilly of Whitehaven Road said Guzek was misusing the term "community solar." Community solar projects are owned and decided by the community, Reilly said, which is not the case here.
Reilly said the solar project "places industry in a residential area." Allowing a special use permit for the solar array industrial project in a residential area is inconsistent with the town's ongoing master plan process "and it undermines the integrity of that Long Range Planning Committee's work as well as raising questions about whether this plan is defeated before it's ever even implemented," he said.
Acknowledging that it is praiseworthy to work energy solutions into the power grid, Reilly said, however, "We don't have to make the kinds of compromises that this plan is calling for."
Approving the project would set a bad precedent, Reilly claimed, because it would encourage more similarly poorly sited projects and reward property owners "who clear-cut their land, no matter where they're located, in the hopes of attracting industry."
"In as much as I think solar is a wonderful thing, solar does not belong in a residential neighborhood," said John Tripi Jr. of Whitehaven Road, who pointed out the property is zoned R1D, new homes. "Not solar, not commercial."
Tripi said four realtors in one week had told him the project would "decrease and/or crush your property value having 42 acres of mirror glass and chain-link fence in your back yard."
Solar belongs in places zoned for such use, such as Lang Boulevard, he said.
"We are prepared to seek legal counsel to stop this. We're not going to stand here and let our values get crushed to benefit something that spot rezones," Tripi said. "Live by the master plan. It's R1D."
James Smith of Whitehaven Road," directly across the street from this proposed project," said not in my front yard.
"It's going to ruin my property value just like the apartment city that ruined the back of my property," Smith said, referring to the Heron Pointe apartment project.
"You ruined my back yard, now you want to ruin my front yard. There's 40 acres just down the road commercially zoned all ready for that. Why can't we put it there and end this project right now?"
John Gorton questioned the financial stability of the solar industry. He said Arizona has done away with benefits for solar arrays "because so many of the companies have gone out of business."
Board advisory boards support the project. Roger Cook, secretary of the Grand Island Economic Development Advisory Board, sent a letter to the Dispatch that said, "Two years ago, the EDAB recommended approval of our solar ordinance. We reasoned that solar systems, including solar farms, were consistent with the New York State Clean Energy Standard, which, in recognition of the impending disasters associated climate change (including the collapse of our major habitats/ecosystems), calls for a 50 percent increase in renewable energy in New York state by 2030. In addition to our solar ordinance, the Town of Grand Island applied to the NYS Energy and Research Development Authority for recognition as a Clean Energy Community. In recognition of our town's ordinance and commitment to fostering renewable energy projects, Grand Island was invited to participate in the NYSERDA program. Our town, with NYSERDA's assistance, is currently implementing a Solarize Grand Island campaign, a program which is good for the environment, the consumer and for our local economy by providing income for the private installer and the installation workers. Similarly, NYSERDA looked favorably on the fact that our ordinance allows for the development of major solar systems, allowing for minimal damage to existing habitats in exchange for reducing our carbon footprint."
Cook wrote that the EDAB "understands that the solar farm developer's plan conforms to the Town of Grand Island solar ordinance."
Solar design standards include provisions that say the "removal of trees and other existing vegetation should be minimized or offset with planting elsewhere on the property," Cook said.
"Therefore, EDAB joins the Planning Board in recommending that the Town Board approve this project."
Last week's Dispatch article erroneously said the town's Conservation Advisory Board recommended approval of the project.
"That is incorrect," replied Suzanne Tomkins of the CAB. "This past Monday we sent a letter to the Town Board and read it into the record of the public hearing. The letter lists our concerns and recommendations to the Town Board, but does not state that we voted in favor."
Among the recommendations listed by the CAB, which apply the letter said would apply for all solar arrays in the future, included alternative solutions to complete perimeter fencing, avoiding removal of mature trees, and buffers between arrays and streams.