State property exemptions for solar and wind power systems have led to an influx of proposed projects in Tompkins County in the last year or so, and currently municipalities are grappling with how to regulate all these new solar and wind farms. At a meeting March 28 where county officials ran through their recommendations for regulations, about 45 members of the public shared wide-ranging views on how and where the large-scale projects should be implemented.
The presentation was led by Joan Jurkowich, planning administrator for the county’s Department of Planning and Sustainability. Jurkowich went through all the guidelines that the county recommends local towns and villages follow when developing local laws regarding small, mid-sized and large-scale solar and wind projects.
Beth McGee, member of the Enfield Town Council, questioned how county officials developed its recommendations. Ed Marx, Tompkins County commissioner of planning and sustainability, said that the county staff did not conduct its own scientific studies to determine what regulations should be put into place but relied on other sources, which are listed on the Department of Planning and Sustainability website.
Enfield has been in tense negations with Black Oak Wind Farm for nearly seven years, and McGee cautioned other municipalities to be proactive about laying out restrictions before proposals are presented so that protracted negotiations with developers can be avoided.
The county’s recommendations include guidelines for height, setback, and location. For instance, it’s recommended that towns avoid construction of large-scale solar on Critical Environmental Areas and Unique Natural Areas, two classifications of land that are identified as worthy of protection by the state and the county, respectively.
The county recommends, among other things, that towns conduct a special use of site plan review for large-sale wind farms and hold a public hearing.
Setback for both medium and large-scale wind projects is recommended at 1.5 times the total height of the turbine from all lot lines and twice the height from any existing residences, schools, churches or libraries. One Enfield resident spoke up to say that she did not believe the setback was far enough to address the issue of potentially dangerous ice being thrown from the blades.
Enfield is not the only Tompkins County that has been struggling with renewable projects. At a recent Town Board meeting in Dryden, residents showed up in full force to voice their opinions about a large-scale commercial solar farm proposed by Distributed Sun, out of Washington, D.C. Some of the roughly 100 attendees were supportive, but many opposed the project because of it’s proximity to a cemetery and the solar company’s perceived lack of communication with residents.
“I’m a firm solar power proponent,” said Dryden resident Jeramy Kruser, who attended the County meeting Wednesday. “This argument I hear over and over again accusing anyone who has any issues with industrial solar in their neighborhood as not being in support of renewable energy is really offensive because part reason I’m fighting so hard to make sure the laws are regulations are correct is because I support wind and solar so firmly, and I want to see it succeed.”
Towns are required to submit any local laws pertaining to renewable energy to the county for review, and while town boards are not required to follow the county’s feedback, they do need a majority vote of at least 60 percent of the board members in favor in order for the law to pass at the town board level.
Last July in Newfield, the board disregarded the county’s opinion on its draft wind law. The board evidently agreed with the Enfield resident who opposed the county’s setback limits. The Newfield Town Board ultimately passed a law that prohibited setbacks of less than 1,760 feet or three times the blade radius, whichever is greater, from adjacent property lines, unless each neighboring landowner within 1,760 feet consents to a written lease, easement or other agreement.
They voted the law through despite the fact that the county said its analysis indicated that a 1,760-foot setback requires at least a 225 acre parcel to develop, “which would very much limit the number of potential opportunities for installation in the Town of Newfield.”
Black Oak officials later said that the law effectively halted its plans to potentially locate one of its windmills within Newfield town lines because it would require the company to gain approval from too many neighboring property owners.
Peter Bardaglio, president of the Black Oak Wind Farm Board of Directors and founder of the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative, spoke passionately at Wednesday’s meeting about the merits of meeting the county’s greenhouse reduction targets, criticizing the “radical individualism” of people who oppose renewable energy projects in their neighborhoods.
“There will be no preserving the rural character or our county if we don’t act now and act fast,” Bardaglio said.
“It’s all our lives, and I don’t want you to think you’re doing everything you can for the environment by feeding the deer or something,” he told the crowd. “This is a wartime emergency.”
Jurkowich concluded the meeting after the comments of David Gower, a member of the Green Resource HUB of the Finger Lakes Board of Directors, saying that it was a good note to end on.
“We need to identify the best sites,” Gower said. “My experience has been that NYSEG’s options to interconnect are few and far between, and we need to maximize all the sites available to us.”
“For some reason we always look to developers from DC and New York City, and yes they can be wheeler-dealers,” he added, “That’s the world we live in, unfortunately, but it’s for the greater good.”
The full Department of Planning and Sustainability solar and wind power presentation is available on the Department’s website at www.tompkinscountyny.gov/planning/energy-greenhouse-gas.