By Terry Duffy
Lewiston Town Board members tackled their first solar project proposal since recent approval of the town's new local law allowing for construction of such projects.
Property owner Timothy R. Masters, who serves as Lewiston building and zoning inspector, is currently seeking a special use permit and site plan review to allow for a proposed utility scale solar energy system to be located at 1897 Swann Road.
The proposal calls for construction of a solar system complex on a 40-acre parcel owned by Masters at the Swann Road site, which is zoned rural residential. Proposed by Borrego Solar Systems Inc. of Lowell, Massachusetts, the plan, if approved, would see construction of a solar panel complex covering some 17.1 acres that would generate 5.3 megawatts of electrical power.
On Monday, the Town Board held a public hearing - which Masters recused himself from. In attendance were representatives of Borrego Solar, and a number of Swann Road residents who offered mixed reactions to the plan.
Susan Sly, who said she was a neighbor, expressed concerns: "I'm a neighbor of Timmy's, so I have a lot of questions. This is the first time I heard about a solar farm being placed on his property, and I know it's not small. ... This is a large scale solar system."
She questioned the large-scale construction of such a project and related noise and traffic issues. "I have several concerns regarding the placement of this," said Sly, who also questioned the town's permitting procedures, considering Master's association with the town and conflict of interest.
Supervisor Steve Broderick told her Masters had already recused himself from the matter under consideration. "That's why he's not in the room right now. So he'll have nothing to do with the actual approval or anything to do with this particular project."
>>Click HERE to download an image detailing the proposed Borrego Solar Project for a property at 1897 Swan Road in Lewiston. (Borrego Solar PDF)
The resident went on to question Masters' involvement on the project, raising the matter of conflict of interest, and questioning why Masters, as a town employee, would profit on such a venture.
"I'm having trouble with that," Sly said. "It's the first one here; there's really nothing on our books that I'm aware of."
In response, Attorney for Town Ryan Parisi went on to clarify the matter, providing background on the solar issue and town procedures.
"We went through the process of passing a solar law ... that got passed earlier this year. This is our first application, but we do have a solar law on the books that allows for this type of project," he said. "In terms of the conflict of interest, we did identify and recognize that it would be a conflict of interest for Tim to have anything to do with this project; so he did notify the Town Board in writing of his interest in the project. And he, in writing, notified the Town Board that he was recusing himself from anything to do with this project in order to alleviate that conflict of interest."
Parisi said Chris McCullough of the Town Building Department would handle "all aspects of this project from the Building Department's perspective."
Parisi said the project has been before the town Planning Board, which had recommended its approval to the Town Board and that the public hearing being held with representatives of Borrego as part of the town's review process.
"The Town Board has not taken a vote to approve the project yet. We're at the public hearing phase to get comments now," he said.
Soon after, Lindsey McIntyre, project developer with Borrego, appeared and presented the company's interest in participating in such a venture. She explained Borrego had targeted 60 parcels across Niagara County for participation in its solar power generation project.
"Those parcels were positioned near substations," she said, explaining the company's interest to be able to connect neighboring projects to the grid. "There has to be three-phase power at the sites, and this site (Masters) happens to have three-phase power outside of it, and it's a large site."
McIntyre said, of the 60 letters sent out, followed by telephone inquiries, about 10 responses had come back and five letters of intent were signed, including the Masters property.
McIntyre said Borrego is moving forward with three projects in Niagara County and that two are in Lewiston. She declined to identify the other properties.
Of the Swann Road site, McIntyre added, "This project is moving along at the quickest pace."
She described the Masters project as having a 5.3 MGW DC System. "It's a community solar system. What that means is that this is a new program for New York state where the community can actually get involved, and their utility bills can be off set by the solar facility.
"So you can actually participate, and it's a subscription where you can get 10 percent off your power bill, your National Grid bill, by subscribing to this site. It's geared toward the community, and it's the big initiative by New York state to help lower household utility expenses."
She added the community solar venture would be back-fed into the grid and offset the electrical needs for between 1,500 to 2,000 homes, depending on individual usage.
As far as the proposed solar on the Swann Road Masters property, Borrego engineer Steve Long described it as having 13,608 panels generating 390 watts of power each. The panels would be installed on stationary frames, holding 24 panels apiece, mounted into the ground.
The project would also involve placement of transformers, followed by a series of string inverters that would generate 60 decibels of noise at the facility - a level Long said would decline to about 40 decibels to neighboring residents.
Long said the proposed solar facility would be located deep inside the property, roughly 528 feet from Swann Road at is nearest point, with the actual solar panel farm located in the rear of the property, and approximately 109 feet from a neighboring property on the east side. The property on the west is wooded.
With Swann Road residents still having questions - two others spoke on environmental concerns involving the suitability of the location and town code issues - the Town Board announced the hearing would remain open to the board's work session (6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 10) and would possibly continue beyond that date.