WESTERLO – The Westerlo Town Board voted, 3 to 2, to extend the town’s moratorium on commercial wind and solar energy systems after a lengthy public hearing where the co-founders of Stella Solar argued against the extension, saying that it threatened plans for a two-megawatt array it had hoped to build on a farm at 300 Johnny Cake Hill Road.
Voting in favor of the extension were Supervisor Bill Bichteman, Councilman Joseph Boone, and Councilman Matthew Kryzak. Bichteman and Boone are both Democrats; Kryzak is a Republican but has sided with Democrats in several crucial issues since taking office in January. Republican councilmembers Amie Burnside and Richard Filkins voted against the extension.
The moratorium was enacted last August after several very large solar projects in Westerlo neared completion, causing some residents to be concerned.
“I think we’re closing the barn door after the horses have left,” said planning board Chairwoman Dorothy Verch, a Republican, at the time the moratorium was enacted.
Solar development had been an issue in the November elections when Verch lost to Bichteman in her bid for supervisor.
The 31-acre property that the new array would have been built on is owned by Theodore and Hope Nugent, who live in Greenville. They purchased farmland that had belonged to Hope Nugent’s parents, intending to build a house on the front 10 acres and later decided to allow the remainder to be the site of a solar array.
Neither the Nugents nor the co-founders of Stella Solar could be reached for comment.
“We didn’t want to have a huge mortgage over our heads into retirement,” Theodore Nugent said at the Aug. 18 meeting, held in person and through videoconference. “Nobody wants that … So we looked at the solar option. The solar option gives us the opportunity to build our house there, and benefit the town of Westerlo and the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District.
“Because it is in that school district, they would receive money from the [Payment in Lieu of Taxes agreement], the town would receive money from the PILOT, and the town would also receive additional income via taxes as we would have a house there.”
A second Stella Solar co-founder, whose name could not be heard clearly, said that a PILOT agreement of $18,000 a year was anticipated.
Supervisor Bill Bichteman has argued, though, that the PILOT payments, most of which benefit the Greenville school district, have little impact on residents’ taxes.
“With all the [Westerlo solar] farms online and making the assumption we eventually have PILOTs with the two farms remaining,” Bichteman told The Enterprise last October, “the total revenue over 15 years is $1,984,206.81. The school district share is $1,448,470.97 and the town share would be $535,735.84.
“I would agree that in total over 15 years they represent a huge amount of money, but it’s misleading” Bichteman continued, “ … For 2021, the town receives $23,093 plus an estimated additional $7,560 from the uncommitted farms. This would give the town $30,653 in budget revenue. It helps, but it is a long way from substantially reducing taxes and it barely meets the anticipated inflation.”
Five solar arrays have been built in Westerlo since 2017, when the town enacted its first solar ordinance. The most infamous of these constructions are the twin arrays on the Shepard Farm property, owned by Rensselaerville Town Supervisor John Dolce, which have elicited complaints from residents who feel the 90-acre spread of panels is an eyesore, or worse.
Westerlo adopted its moratorium on wind and solar energy facilities last August in response to this rapid development, with the board at the time concerned about the lack of a comprehensive plan.
Speaking to the co-owners of Stella Solar, who had complained that they already submitted an interconnection application with utility provider Central Hudson, Bichteman said, “I find it quite bold the fact that you, when the moratorium was in place, went forward with the application, and now you’re here in front of us complaining about hardship.”
The co-founder said that their expectation came from “respect for the plain language [of the 2019 moratorium], which said it was expected to last about a year. There was nothing about a renewal. So we timed our development in conjunction … with the documentation that was available to us. It wasn’t a means of circumventing or going around what you had passed. It was actually to work in lockstep with what you had already established.”
Last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which requires 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040 and economy-wide, net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. State incentives were established to encourage clean-energy development to meet these goals.
Stella Solar co-founder Garrett Peterson said the urgency for his project boiled down to incentives awarded to clean-energy developers.
“The [New York State Energy Research and Development Authority] incentives are decreasing,” Peterson said. “We know the state has aggressive renewable goals … but if Central Hudson or any other utility decides to do a very massive infrastructure upgrade, that ultimately falls on the rate fares, and cases like that take years to go through NYSERDA. So while there is urgency on our end, I do see a very large gap in the incentives in the very near future.”
Among other resources, Falchi-Henck shared with The Enterprise digital dashboards that break down NYSERDA incentives for solar development through its NY-Sun program.
Incentives are doled out in “blocks,” which define the incentives for kilowatt capacity schedules. That amount decreases as more kilowatts are produced. For example, Upstate Region commercial subsidies are currently handed out at 15 cents per kilowatt. Once 4,100,000 kilowatts are generated, the incentive rate will decrease to 13 cents per kilowatt.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Peterson said at the Aug. 18 meeting. “I see what you’re doing with the comp plan, but I would just say that waiting a year not only for our project, but any other project out there, [prevents] the opportunity for the town to see tax revenue from solar.”
“I think I would be very very surprised if NYSERDA incentives would go away by next year,” Westerlo resident Jill Falchi-Henck said. Falchi-Henck is a senior planner for the Capital District Regional Planning Commission and is a member of Westerlo’s comprehensive plan committee.
“I also know that the capacity in Central Hudson is fairly limited at the moment,” Falchi-Henck said, “but, as we probably both know, that’s something that is fluid and can probably be upgraded in the future.
“While for your potential project that you would like to get started now, this might be the prime time, the town of Westerlo, having been through this process for three years now, determined that the right thing to do is review the comprehensive plan, and put some tweaks into the … very fleshed out zoning code.”
“I think the urgency is really on your side and less on the town’s side,” Falchi-Henck said.
Westerlo’s first comprehensive plan, adopted six years ago, was paltry and never codified into zoning law.
Comprehensive plans are an important resource for municipalities, whose various boards refer to the plan when deciding on use of the town’s land and resources. In Knox, a proposal to turn a residential district into a more business-friendly multi-use recreational district was shot down last year, with the town’s comprehensive plan playing a large role in the debate among town board members.
Westerlo took steps toward a new plan last year when it formed a nine-member committee that has been meeting since September. Bichteman said at the Aug. 18 meeting that Westerlo’s plan should be ready to adopt by February next year, leaving the town enough time to make changes to its ordinances based on the substance of the plan.
“It’s a little infuriating, if I’m being frank,” Falchi-Henck said to the Stella Solar founders, “that we’ve been working on this [comprehensive plan] for a long time, and you’re coming in tonight, the day that the moratorium is supposed to be renewed, to bring us this proposal without having considered the work that we’ve done to make better regulations for the town.
“I totally appreciate the solar for the town and the urgency you are facing … However, I think if you want to be a good neighbor, then respect what the town has been moving toward, which is an updated comprehensive plan.”
Westerlo resident and chairwoman of the town’s Republican committee, Lisa DeGroff, stressed that, with the coronavirus pandemic straining municipal budgets, the town needs to prioritize revenue boosters.
“I’ve been saying for years now that we can’t be relying on state and federal funds and we need to find creative sources of revenue,” DeGroff said.
She also said that, whether the town has a comprehensive plan or not, residents still have the opportunity to offer their perspective on local projects to the planning board.
“Everyone keeps talking about this comprehensive plan,” DeGroff said, “and that’s great, we need to update our comp plan, [but] when there’s a project before the planning board … residents will likely show up and the board will take their input.”
Verch challenged Bichteman for the supervisor’s position last November and central to her campaign – and possibly her loss, according to DeGroff – was her advocacy for solar farms, which was far more enthusiastic than Bichteman’s, who promoted caution.
“The planning board is the most educated there is, ever, in Westerlo,” Verch told The Enterprise last October, and highlighted how business-oriented its members are. “I think we’ve only refused one application that came before us.”
At the Aug. 18 meeting, comprehensive plan committee member Barbara Russell asked that the board extend the moratorium, explaining that the feedback she’s heard from residents so far signals a worry about rapid solar development.
“Yes, [the Stella project] benefits one family,” Russell said, “but how many families does it affect?”
“Everything I’m hearing,” Russel said later, “is, ‘We need to stop, we need to regroup, extend the moratorium for another year, and then go forward.’ Our plan is to have that done.”
Later in the meeting, Falchi-Henck said that, although the comprehensive plan is being prioritized over immediate solar projects, the comprehensive plan is not designed to be “anti-solar.”
“The comprehensive plan can be interpreted as something that can produce a result that is anti-solar,” Falchi-Henck said, adding that she was speaking as just one member of the comprehensive plan committee. “I think that’s a common misconception …
“We’ve been working on this comprehensive plan for a year and for any of you who know what we’ve been working on, we’ve been busting our butts to get this done because we, too, want to see commercial development within the town of Westerlo, especially well-planned and well-sited solar.”
Reiterating the points of the committee members, Councilman Boone said, “I think at the time [the moratorium was first adopted], we were simply overwhelmed. It was a severe learning curve … so you’ve got a lot of folks in this town who are hesitant to see more developments come in.”
“I think it would be short-sighting ourselves,” Boone said, “and not doing our duty to the residents of the town by turning a cheek.”
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