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Residents learn about leasing land for renewable energy projects

POTSDAM – The town meeting room was full at 6:30 p.m. Monday as residents from the area gathered to learn about the implications and possibilities of leasing land for renewable energy production.

The event, hosted by the St. Lawrence County Agricultural and Farmland Protection Board, was designed to provide local landowners and farmers, in particular, with the facts about leasing out land to companies looking to build solar arrays or industrial wind turbines.

“It’s a big decision to make,” said Madeline Pennington, a retired executive director for the Cornell Cooperative Extension. “It not only affects (landowners), it affects their neighbors, it affects the entire town.”

The presenters were Matilda Larson from the St. Lawrence County Planning Office and Scott B. Goldie, an attorney from Canton who has reviewed some of these leases.

Ms. Larson began with some general information on the importance of preserving soil during energy development, along with some of the infrastructure and legislation that is encouraging the growth of renewable energy in the north country.

Much of the information Ms. Larson shared was on balancing the growth of renewable energy productions so as to preserve landowner’s agricultural pursuits as much as possible. Her advice included advising landowners to lease out fallow or poor-quality farmland rather than prime land, situate turbine and solar panel access roads along ridge lines or the edges of fields and consider the impact on livestock – sheep may be able to graze alongside solar panels, while goats have a habit of chewing on wires.

Mr. Goldie focused more on the importance of reading leases carefully and getting legal advice to understand the implications of any deal that might be presented.

“You need to go to an attorney and have them look at this stuff for you,” Mr. Goldie said. “And you need to be prepared to go back with a counter-offer.”

Once a lease or an option to lease, which gives the company the ability to use the lease or not as they see fit, is signed, it is very difficult to re-negotiate. Everything from the location of the lease and easements for roads to decommissioning the structures at the end of their life has to be worked out, and leases often last for 20 to 40 years, making it important to think ahead.

Rent, for instance, might be reasonable at the current rate, but not decades later.

“The lease is 20 years, extended in five- or 10-year increments to 40 years. You want to make sure that payment keeps pace with inflation,” Mr. Goldie said.

Because the expansion of renewable energy in the area is fairly recent, many of these issues have not yet been ironed out in the ways they have in other parts of the country that have already built many solar or wind farms.

“I think the reason why we’re talking about this tonight, and we’re talking about it here, is it’s a relatively new land use for the north country,” said Ms. Larson.

Several of the attendees were simply trying to get more information, and thought it was unlikely energy companies would even offer a lease.

Daniel Z. Martin, who owns a farm in Stockholm, received an option – an agreement to do research on the suitability of land – from a company, but says he believes the company sent them out to everyone in the area. As for if he would be interested in leasing land to a renewable energy company, he said “I’d have to know more.”

Another attendee, David W. Hartman, did not have his own land, but was looking into the possibility for land his family owns in Canton and Russell.

“(It’s my) first time considering anything like this,” he said.

Because there are so many variations, no single presentation could answer all the issues around leasing land for solar and wind power, and many attendees stayed after the 90-minute meeting ended to ask extra questions. This complication, and the length of the leases, makes it especially important for landowners to seek out individual advice.

“They really do need to get legal advice,” Ms. Larson said.