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Lewiston Town Board approves special use permit for solar project

Sat, Sep 29th 2018 07:00 am
By Terry Duffy
Editor-in-Chief
The Lewiston Town Board gave its OK on a new a solar facility under its new solar law on Monday. Specifically, it approved a special use permit to allow for construction of a proposed utility scale solar energy project on property owned by Town Building/Zoning Inspector Tim Masters at 1897 Swann Road.
But the vote came not before hearing significant opposition that night and over past weeks from Swann Road neighbors. The proposal was first introduced at an Aug. 27 public hearing. Many told the board they are steadfastly opposed to the solar panel complex covering some 17.3 acres. The project, when complete and operating, would generate 5.3 Mw of electrical power. A public hearing process opened on Aug. 27 and continued over past weeks with the Town Board receiving comments throughout this month.
This week, residents opposed to the plan again came out to voice their thoughts in nearly a 90-minute discussion on the matter.
Ridge Road resident Daniel Sanger came before the board and presented a petition signed by many of his neighbors.
"These are the residents who reside on Swann Road from Porter Center to Williams. And I'm going to tell you not one household didn't sign the petition. ... About half of them didn't know anything about this project. Kind of an eye-opener," Sanger said. He told the Town Board he was armed with many signatures in opposition. "I have many signatures here; potentially I could have hundreds more just by what I've seen."
Sanger requested the board hold off on any action, so that he could go out and inform residents and obtain more signatures, "because they don't know."
The resident said he spoke with local farmers, many of whom had been approached with solicitations from solar providers, "and they all said no to them."
"One man I spoke with ... he was in fear of reprisal, because of one man with power ... the building inspector," Sanger continued. "That sort of demonstrates distrust and a conflict of interest, right there.
"If this goes through, solar panels could be set up in anyone's backyard; don't set a precedence."
Resident Tobin Gorman spoke at length on how the project conflicts with the town's 2011 Comprehensive Plan, particularly as it relates to agricultural land use. He suggested the Swann Road project under consideration flies in the face of that document, as it would convert agricultural lands to non-agricultural use.
"This location, it does not fit into this plan," he said.
Neighbor Patty Gormley of Swann Road, whose family has owned properties there for decades, told the board the solar project would ruin the neighborhood: "What this is going to do to that, it is going to ruin it. It is going to ruin my property value, all the properties that I and my family own out there. I just don't think that it's right."
The woman, like Sanger earlier, argued that not enough notice had been given by the town, telling the board that just 12 residents had been notified.
Another resident told the board he opposed the prospect of an industrial-sized operation coming to the neighborhood, also suggesting a conflict of interest with Masters.
All residents who spoke said they wanted the Town Board to take a step back on any action.
That was not to happen.
Instead, Supervisor Steve Broderick and Town Board members went on to engage in lengthy back and forth discussions over the matter.
Attorney for the Town Ryan Parisi told the board it had three options that night: "approve; approve with conditions; deny; or punt your decision further down the road." He said the board had roughly 48 days to make a decision on the matter.
In discussions that followed, Councilman Al Bax said he felt there had not been enough discussion regarding the conflicts over Building Inspector Masters, who had completely recused himself from any involvement in the issue. Further, Bax said he did not anticipate the opposition from neighbor residents to the project.
"I'm having a difficult time with this decision," he said.
In response, Parisi said the solar project proposal, indeed, had faced extensive muster and won approval from a number of interests. He spoke of detailed reviews by the town's Engineering Department and the Planning Board, the Lewiston Environmental Commission, and the Niagara County Planning Board, followed by the Lewiston Town Board.
"It does get reviewed several times throughout that process," he said.
Bax replied, "My biggest issue, I did not expect that we were going to receive this much 'head wind' ... for what I consider a green project."
Of the flack from residents, he continued, "We have an obligation to them; we also have an obligation to hold up our code, and make sure we've done everything right.
There's a lot to consider; I'm having a very difficult time with this particular decision. For my part, I haven't taken this lightly." Bax noted he had lengthy conversations on these concerns with Gormley and Sanger."
"The biggest (here) is the unknown," Broderick said, noting the potential impacts to property values. "I have not taken this matter lightly; I've spent a lot of time on this. We created the solar law, this fits the solar law, there are no variances."
Broderick said the town reviewed Wheatfield's solar law and made it more stringent to conform to Lewiston's expectations: "We took their law and we added to it, tried to sort it out."
Of the Swann Road application, Broderick added, "I'm ready to move forward."
Board reviews on the proposed solar project continued. Included were discussions over its compatibility with the town's Master Plan; the town's solar law and its ability to deal with unintended consequences on various projects; whether any special privileges had been given to Masters (none were); and the town's efforts to fine-tune the project to make it "closer to perfection" in the eyes of neighbors.
Also considered was: the time frame needed to work with the Borrego Solar Systems proposal for the project; adhering to the many particulars in the state environmental quality review procedures (SEQR) long form; addressing any impacts to federal wetlands; addressing erosion and mitigation issues from construction and neighboring impacts; addressing future issues concerning property ownerships and changes by the Borrego Solar provider; and addressing any impacts to agriculture and neighboring residents.
"It's very a difficult decision," Bax said.
When it was all said and done, the Town Board, on a lengthy motion prepared by Parisi, forwarded by Councilman Bill Geiben, seconded by Bax, went on to approve a motion for the special use permit. It was approved by a 5-0 vote, with conditions for the Swann Road property.
Soon after, the two Borrego representatives, as well nearly all neighboring residents who opposed the project, departed the Town Hall boardroom.

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