By Michael DePietro
At its Nov. 14 meeting, the Lewiston Town Board approved a six-month moratorium on new proposals pertaining to utility-grade solar energy systems. The move comes after a pair of contentious public hearings where a vocal group of residents spoke out against a proposed facility at 4352 Williams Road, spearheaded by Borrego Solar.
Prior to the moratorium vote however, the town did ultimately approve and award Borrego a special-use permit for the Williams Road site.
Councilman John Jacoby noted that because of the amount of money spent on the project already by both Borrego Solar, and the property owners, Richard and Adrienne Piva, the town could potentially set itself up for legal action if they halted the project.
“It wouldn’t take a legal genius to say that if we stopped the project abruptly, on what they might consider a whim, I think we would open the town up to significant legal liability and a lawsuit. I’d like nothing better than to say ‘we’ll hold it off for six months and see how everything shakes out,’ but it just can’t happen with this project,” Jacoby said.
The project, as presented, is in keeping with Town’s laws, specifically zoning code, Chapter 360, Article 28 – Solar Energy Systems.
Leading off, the board held a public hearing where residents voiced their opinions regarding the moratorium and solar projects in general. As expected, a number of residents spoke out against the projects.
Evelyn Lauer expressed concern on the rate that these projects have been approved since the local law was passed last year. She went on to questioned the board as to whether residents’ concerns are being taken seriously.
Andrew Nicols urged Town Board members to utilize the moratorium timeframe to better plan for the future, rather than just use it as a means of pacifying residents for six months. He pressed the board to look for areas in close approximation with the connecting electrical substations, such as landfills and other forms of “waste land” that might better suit the projects and mitigate the impact on rural residents’ way of life.
However, in a first since the Williams Road proposal was announced, some residents also spoke out in favor of the solar projects.
Nancy Treichler called solar energy “the wave of the future” and cited their positive environmental benefits before going on to say that she would be happy to live next to one of these facilities. She also criticized the complaint that the projects are eyesores, noting the tree screening efforts that would help hide the sites from public view.
Another resident, Aaron Lilly, was also in favor of the projects. He began first by arguing that he believes residents should be able to use their property as they see fit, so long as its in keeping with local law. He then went on to criticize how many who spoke against the project had prefaced their remarks by claiming to be in favor of solar projects in general.
“Times are changing, we want to look for new ways to power things. We’ve got all this technology but no one wants it in their backyard,” Lilly said. Lilly also noted that the connecting substation, as reported at the Nov. 2 board meeting, was essentially at capacity, meaning the area cannot support any further solar sites. Town Supervisor Steve Broderick confirmed that this is what the town has been told by Borrego and National Grid.
Following the public hearing, Broderick called on all concerned local residents to email him directly at [email protected] to give their thoughts on the solar projects, regardless of whether they are in favor or against.
The board went on to discuss some areas they would be looking into during the six-month period. Broderick noted that the timeframe would allow for the completion of two previously approved facilities, giving the town a chance to better understand the full scale and scope of these kinds of facilities.
“I know the trees will only be around 8-10 feet, and they’re going to grow more, but I want to see a completed project and see what the real impact is before we go any further,” Broderick said. “We’re getting so many (solar projects) kind of thrown at us and we haven’t seen any completed.”
2020 Budget/Finance Update
The board also voted to approve the town’s 2020 budget, totaling $18,483,371. The final numbers represent a $356,238 (1.97%) increase over the 2019 budget. However, the plan also indicates a projected 0.47% tax decrease.
Earlier, Town Finance/Budget Director Jacqueline Agnello said that the increases were spread out through “pretty much every fund,” adding that the town had “2% salary increases for every union; our property insurance went up 5%; our fire protection-contractual – and other worker’s comp – went up.” She went on to say that the board looked to create significant reductions in other spending areas “to cover the increases that were out of our control.”
Agnello also took a moment to provide an update on the town’s investments into U.S. Treasuries. Since July, the town earned a total interest of $7,595 as of Oct. 31. The next set of investments is scheduled to mature on Jan. 30 2020, with an expected $20,000 interest.
When asked about the town’s plans for implementing a comprehensive fund balance policy, Agnello said that the plan is currently being reviewed by the town’s attorneys and she expected to have a future update.
Finally, Agnello also announced four budget revisions. First was is in the Justice/Courts department, moving a total of $2,100 from the Justice-Contractual budget to the Justice-Equipment budget to cover various equipment purchases. The second one was from the Parks Department, moving $572 from the Parks-contractual budget, to the Parks-equipment budget for the purchase of a tiller. The third moved $30,000 from the Highway Department’s-general repairs contractual budget to the Highway Machinery contractual budget, to cover various expenses to equipment. Finally, $25,000 was moved from the Sewer Treatment and Disposal equipment budget, with $20,000 going to the Sewer Treatment and Disposal contractual budget, and the remaining $5,000 being split evenly between the Sewer Administration equipment and contractual budgets, to cover various equipment and contractual expenses through the remainder of the year.