August 2, 2019
New York

Town solar and wind law (almost) ready

By Dan Veaner | The Lansing Star | August 02, 2019 |

Town of Lansing Director of planning C.J. Randall conducted the first of two scheduled informational meetings Monday to fill in residents on a proposed Solar and Wind Energy local law. Randall says the law, which has been circulating since last year, is crafted to encourage solar farms, while protecting farmland in the town. In addition to wind and solar, the law covers large scale battery energy storage systems and their impact.

“Our goal is to offer some regulatory certainty for companies that want to come in to do this, and also offer landowners piece of mind that the projects will be held to a certain standard,” Randall says. “The Planning Board has a lot of discretion to support or deny the siting of a large scale solar array. The Planning Board and the Town Board would like to see the large scale arrays be OK here, but you also have this competing interest from some folks about how that will impact actively farmed land.”

There are currently no large scale solar arrays in the Town of Lansing, although a number of proposals have been floated, including a solar farm that could have supplied power to the Lansing Schools and an 18 megawatt solar farm that is now proposed for the Empire State Data Center if that facility is successful. The first to actually go online in Lansing will be a 6.5 MW AC Nexamp community solar array on 24 acres off of Jerry Smith Road. This make it an ideal time to get a solar and wind law in place.

The law, which has been posted on the Town Web site for residents to review, is quite specific, limiting the height of solar panels, defining the visual effect the solar array has on the landscape, fence heights and gate requirements, noise levels for wind installations, underground connections, security measures, permitting requirements, and a detailed decommissioning plan.

That last is a major part of how farm land is protected, insuring that it can be restored with topsoil intact. It also protects forested areas.

The law reads, “Solar energy facilities must avoid clearing extensive areas of forest, and practicable efforts must be made to minimize visual impacts by preserving natural vegetation and providing dense evergreen landscape screening to abutting residential properties and roads, yet screening should minimize the shading of solar collectors.”

Randall says a map showing active farmland with prime soils makes it clear where the best parcels for solar and wind are located. One quick look and it is obvious to developers which farmers they should approach to lease or buy land from.

“The idea is to give people a sense of where ‘suitable’ parcels are,” she says. “They’re looking for property that’s about a half mile from the transmission line. The reason for that is, of course, there is a lot of infrastructure investment to be made to connect to the grid, so you don’t want to be doing it from far out.”

That was the exact issue that companies faced when they tried to convince the Lansing school district to buy into solar. A number of sites were suggested, but many were just too far from where they could hook up to the grid, making the project too expensive. Ultimately the school board nixed the idea because it didn’t want to commit future school boards for so many years in the future, especially for a developing technology.

Randall says the draft will bring the proposed law into the land use ordinance to clarify the uses and make it part of zoning. The more specific the law is, the better guide it is for the planning board when they conduct site plan reviews on solar or wind projects. It establishes conditions for site plan approval, but also gives the Planning Board some discretion. For instance the draft law allows the Planning Board to specify the type of racking system that supports solar panels based on their analysis of what is best for the particular parcel of land.

“Topsoil will not be removed from properties when they do any trenching,” she says. “There will be a plan for soil restoration as part of the decommissioning plan. Topsoil would be put in designated areas on the site plan, because what we don’t want is people coming in and doing cut and scrape of the landscape.”

Randall says that eventually it is conceivable that Lansing could have enough solar electricity generation to make up for the approximately 300 megawatts the Cayuga Power Plant could produce.

“There are 1,500 to 2,000 acres in the Town that would be covered by solar,” she says. “We have 3.2 million acres in the Town of Lansing over 73 square miles. So that’s a fairly modest impact impact overall on the landscape, for the bang for the buck.”

Randall says the last issue the Town Board has to resolve is how many contiguous acres of prime farm land can be covered by solar panels.

“They say that for a competitive 80 to 100 megawatt solar array you’re looking at around 500 acres,” she calculates. “It’s a huge swath of land. That’s where we’re trying to come to a number. Ten contiguous acres of actively farmed prime soils is probably not doable. It’s going to make projects infeasible. So what is that number? Is it 500? Is it 1000? I can’t answer that question. That’s really a policy question.”

The Town has declared itself the lead agency, and has sent letters to New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets, New York State Electric & Gas (NYSEG), and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NSYSERDA) to notify them of the Town’s intention to move forward with the law. Another informational meeting is scheduled for next Wednesday at 5pm at the Town Hall, and then a public hearing will be scheduled, most likely for the September 18th Town Board meeting. Unless comments at the public hearing would prompt significant changes, it is likely the Town Board will adopt the law at that meeting.

“We’ve put a lot of thought into this,” Randall says. “We’ve talked to a lot of different people, garnered a lot of opinions. The job of planning is to balance the public interest with private property rights. So we’re always walking the knife’s edge of what is too much regulation versus not enough. In this instance we relied heavily on the Planning Board and Town Board for feedback, but also listening to solar developers and landowners. And using as many resources as we can.”

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