ALBANY – Led in part by Columbia County town officials, a group of municipalities and local environmental organizations are suing the Cuomo administration over what they say is the loss of their constitutional home rule rights by giving a special state panel – not localities – the power to approve large solar and wind farms.
Creation of the Office of Renewable Energy Siting, or ORES, to streamline the approval process for green power projects was hailed last year by the renewable/green energy industry and many environmentalists. They said a fast-track system was needed to replace the cumbersome years-long process that had been in place, especially given New York’s push to switch to renewable power in the coming years to combat climate change.
But in some locales, people have objected to sizable solar farms and wind turbine projects, complaining that it is ruining their views, disrupting their communities and removing the ability of local officials such as town or zoning board members to control such developments.
The suit also comes as officials in the town of Copake, Columbia County, are battling a 255-acre solar project proposed by Chicago-based Hecate Energy. Ultimately, the ORES board, rather than local officials, will decide its fate.
Copake is listed as the first plaintiff, followed by several bird-watching groups and small municipalities in western and northern New York where several large wind farms are proposed
In addition to the home rule argument, the plaintiffs also note that an Albany engineering firm, Tetra Tech, helped write the new regulations, even though that company is also working with a number of solar and wind developers.
Tetra Tech couldn’t be reached for comment on Wednesday.
The plaintiffs also contend that policymakers failed to take a “hard look” at the impact of their rules, as required by other state environmental laws when creating ORES and its regulatory scheme.
“ORES performed only a cursory ‘short-form’ review, in violation of the detailed environmental impact statement that SEQRA requires,” said the plaintiffs, referring to the State Environmental Quality Review Act.
ORES regulations, for example, suggest that wind farms with 700-foot turbines spanning entire counties, as well as solar projects covering thousands of acres of farmland, would not result in even one adverse environmental impact, the plaintiffs allege.
The suit also lists a number of local setback, noise and other ordinances regarding land use – all of which can be overridden by the ORES process.
ORES does contain a proviso that localities can comment and should have some input on project decisions, but it is basically up to ORES to say yes or no.
The process applies to energy projects producing more than 20 megawatts, which is generally considered industrial scale and which would be plugged into the state’s wider power grid. Smaller projects can still be governed by local zoning regulations.
ORES was put in place last year in order to replace the Article 10 system in which industrial power plants were sited and approved. That process had long been criticized as being slow and bureaucratic – with projects taking years, as well as multiple levels of review, to be approved.
Clean energy advocates, including the Alliance for Clean Energy trade group and the New York League of Conservation Voters, had pushed for a streamlined process, which they said was especially important in light of the state’s new mandate for switching quickly to renewable power in order to counter greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.
The 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act calls for New York to derive 70 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 and be running on a zero emission grid by 2040.
“In creating ORES, the state removed power plant siting authority from a government body with nearly 50 years of experience–the State Siting Board within the Department of Public Service – and gave it to a new agency which is both inexperienced and understaffed, and which outsourced the writing of its regulations and the review of energy project applications to an energy industry consultant currently representing some 25 wind and solar energy developers in New York,” reads part of the legal complaint filed Tuesday in State Supreme Court in Albany County.
“ORES possesses the power to authorize renewable energy companies to clear large tracts of forest, level hilltops, degrade or destroy sensitive habitat, harm wildlife, kill birds and bats, waive local laws, interfere with continental scale bird migration, and eliminate vast acreage of farmland and agriculture,” it added.
While the suit comes as the battle against Hecate’s Copake project, named Sheperd’s Run, has heated up, there also have been bitter complaints against some of the larger wind turbine projects going up in western and northern New York.
The lawsuit mentions them and it alleges that some of the large turbines pose a danger to bird life. Additionally it mentions what plaintiffs call a “shadow flicker” or supposed health impact of seeing the constant flicker of a spinning turbine blade, for people who are nearby.
The plaintiffs are represented by The Zoghlin Group law firm in Rochester.
ORES spokesman Nathan Stone said they were aware of the suit but the agency declined to comment.