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Lewiston Town Board: Solar farm projects under fire from residents

Sat, Oct 26th 2019 07:00 am

Construction noise, environmental issues, impacts to nearby property values cited

By Michael DePietro

A number of outraged residents came out to the Oct. 17 Lewiston Town Board meeting to sound-off on a proposed utility-grade solar energy system planned for 4352 Williams Road.

This was the second public hearing on the project after a sparsely attended first session in September. Last month, Supervisor Steve Broderick said a second hearing would be scheduled because residents in close proximity to the project hadn’t been fully made aware of the initial hearing.

At the meeting’s onset, Marc Kenward, of the engineering firm Erdman Anthony, delivered an overview of the proposed project. It’s a lease arrangement with Borrego Solar that would cover 28.4 acres of the eastern portion of the property owned by Richard and Adrienne Piva.

His presentation was virtually identical to the one given last month. Addressing some of the common fears associated with this type of project, Kenward described the construction process as “environmentally friendly” and highlighted the plan to screen the area off with a dense line of freshly planted trees.

Kenward also emphasized the project was in keeping with town law, citing the Town of Lewiston’s zoning code, Chapter 360, Article 28 – solar energy systems.

 “Utility-scale solar systems like this one are allowed in rural residential districts as well as industrial zoning districts. This proposed project is in a residential zoning district,” Kenward said.

Many residents weren’t satisfied, however. Nearly all who spoke out during the hearing acknowledged they weren’t opposed to solar energy, but said the projects raised a number of concerns and issues.

Evelyn Lauer argued the project was not in keeping with “the rural character and feel” of her community.

“When I purchased my property 25 years ago, I wanted to put down roots in a rural, country setting. If I wanted to live in an industrial location, I would’ve chosen to live in area of Niagara Falls, Lockport or Buffalo,” Lauer said.

Local farmer Andrew Nichols echoed Lauer’s sentiment. He said, “These projects don’t belong out in the country. You can call it a farm, but it’s not a farm. A farm is using the land for agricultural purposes to grow food. It’s what I do.”

Nichols went on to voice the concerns many residents have, on the rate at which solar farms like this appear to be entering the community. Last year, the board approved the first such project for a Swann Road property owned by Town of Lewiston Building and Zoning Inspector Tim Masters. In January, the board approved a plan for a 29-acre utility-scale solar system on land owned by Donald and Janice Laurie at 2643 Moore Road, in an agreement with OYA Solar Inc.

Since then, rural residents, including Nichols and others at Thursday night’s hearing, have said they’ve been solicited by numerous energy companies proposing similar solar projects on their land. These offers are typically incentivized as an additional source of revenue for the property owner.

“I think that the town has created – by allowing the special-use permit, without really thinking about the big plan – we’ve created something we really have no way to stop it now,” Nichols said.

Later in the hearing, Nichols brought up a proposed facility on his neighbor’s land and asked Borrego’s representatives to comment, prompting Borrego’s Lindsey McEntire to concede another parcel Borrego would like to develop is currently awaiting National Grid’s approval.

Nichols concluded his initial statements, assuring the board that this issue will be a hot topic during the current election cycle.

“To be honest with you, some of you are up for election this year. I can’t vote for any of you,” he said. Because if this is how you treat residents – you don’t take our concerns, you just approve projects – sorry; you’ve lost my vote.”

Town Board members said their thought, when first passing the solar law, was the amount of solar farms would be limited by the arrays that could be connected to the town’s two electrical substations.

Councilman Alfonso Bax stated, “It was my impression that it would tap itself out; that there would be a limit to it and then it wouldn’t be commercially viable anymore. If that’s no longer the case – and that I don’t know – but it’s certainly something we should investigate.”

However, many of the residents suggested those limitations could simply be bypassed by upgrading the substations.

McEntire said National Grid has a limitation on what it will allow and there is a capacity on that substation. She went on to say that, while upgrades have been made to the substation to allow for Borrego’s current sites, they haven’t been substantial enough to allow for a flood of solar arrays to be interconnected.

“We’re talking, I mean, $10-20 million worth of upgrades that would need to be put in place, and National Grid has to approve those,” McEntire said. “And there has to be a demand for that energy. And so, if that demand doesn’t exist, they’re not going to allow for these upgrades to be put in place. We’ve seen that on other substations across NYS.”

When pressed by Bax if she could quantify exactly how many solar facilities the current substations would be able to handle, McEntire said she would get the numbers from National Grid.

Later, Williams Road resident Dave Catlin asked the board what would happen to these farms should a company like Borrego or others go out of business, or if the technology were to become outmoded.

Broderick said a decommissioning bond is in place that would pay for the removal of the structure, noting the solar farms leave “minimal damage to the property. So, if you had a farmer, for a couple of years, till the property is back to where it was before.”

Other resident concerns throughout the hearing included construction noise, environmental impacts, and impacts to nearby property values. Jason Lombardi said he was considering selling his house. Later, his wife, Jennifer, mentioned the tree screens weren’t effective and the solar farm neighboring their property could clearly be seen from their second-floor windows.

Another resident, John Grabowski, put it succinctly and said residents in the area feel as if they’re being forced out of their neighborhoods.

No action was taken on the plan that night. Discussions on the project will resume at Monday’s Town 6 p.m. Board meeting.

Town of Lewiston budget planning continues

Earlier this month, the Town of Lewiston debuted its 2020 spending plans, which reflect increases over the adopted 2019 plan of $18,127,133. The town introduced its preliminary $18,410,684 spending plan, with budgetary requests from the various town departments at $18,472,513.

Under the latest plan (tentative $18,472,513), subtotal costs under appropriations are $11,676,262, with $1,095,820 to be raised by taxes. Under special districts, that amount totals $6,796,252, with $3,429,108 to be raised by taxes. Combined totals to be raised by taxes under the $17.8 million plan amount to $4,524,928.

The 2019 salary schedule of town elected officials is as follows: highway superintendent, $72,989; town clerk/tax collector, $62,359; town justices (two) $28,495; and Town Board members (four) $14,410.

The schedule also lists the salary of the supervisor as $30,000. Per New York State Retirement and Social Security Law 212, retirees under 65 who are elected or appointed to any public office within New York are subject to earnings limitations. The amount they can earn cannot excess $30,000. Supervisor Steve Broderick retired in 2017. Without this limitation, his salary would be $43,583.

Town Finance/Budget Director Jacqueline Agnello discussed some of the issues and changes that arose during this year’s budget discussions.

As per the current 2020 budget forecast, retirement costs appear to be increasing slightly. Agnello noted that, since this expense is based upon salaries, it can increase the budget due to contractual requirements and can decrease the budget due to changes in employment personnel such as retirements and new hires.

Conversely, however, health insurance costs are decreasing very slightly, which Agnello said, “Is due to many contributing factors such as changes in health insurance companies, premium costs, new hires paying a percentage of their premium costs, and employee changes in election of coverage. These factors impact the budget every year, either in a positive or negative way.”

Agnello also said sales tax revenue is up slightly this year due to the collection of sales tax on internet purchases. However, the town is currently waiting for information on how the county will account for taking over the previous state Aid and Incentives for Municipalities payments this year and years to follow.

When asked whether there were any other cost bearing issues that would impact the budget, such as town projects/improvements, financial liabilities or shortfalls, Agnello replied, “There are always multiple cost bearing issues that impact the budget, but to date there aren’t any new or major issues over last year’s 2019 budget.”

Lastly, Agnello said she did not anticipate any changes regarding Modern Disposal’s agreement on the town’s garbage/recycling services.

The preliminary town budget will be presented to the board on Oct. 28, while a public hearing for the 2020 budget will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7.

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