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Dewittville solar project moving forward, despite concerns

A proposed solar project in Dewittville is moving ahead, although town officials are expressing their disappointment with the company.

The Chautauqua Town Board on Monday continued its public hearing on a proposed 5-megawatt solar array on Hartfield-Stockton Road. The developer is Omni Navitas of Boston, Mass.

In June, the town board opened its public hearing. Many residents, including dozens of Amish families, expressed their opposition. Reasons for the opposition included concerns over lost farmland, the project would impact a major snowmobile trail, as well as concerns about water safety and how the project would be decommissioned at the end of its life cycle.

At that meeting, Peter McAuliffe spoke on behalf of Omni Navitas and was asked to have his company send a check to the town of Chautauqua to pay for engineering costs for the town to investigate concerns raised.

The company did not send a check in July, nor August and McAuliffe was not in attendance at either town board meeting. Town officials expressed their concerns with Omni Navitas and said they planned on taking action against the project in September if they didn’t hear from the company.

On Monday, McAuliffe returned and apologized to the town for the holdup. He blamed New York state for causing the delay and said they are prepared to move forward, even with state issues left unresolved.

“There is some fluidity with the state’s program. It’s kind of in an in-between program while they roll out the next phase,” he said. “We still think this is a great project for the town and we want to get things back on track.”

According to McAuliffe, a $15,000 check has been mailed to the town for engineering costs and that it should be received by the end of the week at the latest.

During Monday’s continued public hearing, one resident asked the town board to pass a resolution like the Niagara County Legislature, which requires solar panels be recycled instead of placed in a landfill. Councilman Tom Carlson asked what would happen to the project once it is no longer in use. McAuliffe said a $150,000 bond will be created to cover the decommissioning of the project and added that many of the materials will be recycled.

Carlson said he was concerned that $150,000 wouldn’t be enough in 25 years. “We don’t know. Nobody in this room is going to be around at that time. … I’m afraid at that time it’s going to be a huge burden on the property owner,” he said.

McAuliffe said they can look at the project every five years and add to the bond if $150,000 is too low. Carlson expressed his doubts that would happen if it gets built. “Your project is already there. Why would you have to agree to anything?” the elected official said.

Councilman Scott Cummings said he doesn’t trust Omni Navitas to follow through. “I don’t have confidence in your company,” he said to McAuliffe.

Cummings noted that Omni Navitas was supposed to have the engineering check in weeks, if not months, ago. Because of this, he said he is not in support of the project.

McAuliffe again apologized for the delay but said they are committed to having a good, safe solar project in the town that meets the required specifications.

Carlson wasn’t interested in hearing apologies. “I’m done with this. I want the hearing done. I want to vote on this and if we need to start over on this, we start over again,” he said.

Councilman Dave Ward disagreed and said he feels they should still continue to investigate the project next month. “We’ve worked with companies that’s taken five years to get something done. No one wanted this thing to happen quickly, because we wanted to get all the information we could. We have some problems with the logistics. They need to be worked out or we start all over again and I really don’t want to start all over again. I don’t think that one more month would hurt,” he said.

Town attorney Joel Seachrist advised keeping the public hearing open until the engineering study is completed. “If you continue to have doubts about the design, the future of the project, it’s decommissioning, etc. that comes out during the actual public hearing where an engineer is involved with those issues,” he said.

The town board agreed to continue with the public hearing next month and then look at the engineering report should that be completed by then.

McAuliffe thanked the board for allowing the project to continue. “I’m not disputing all of the points and criticisms and everything you said about how you’re feeling. I just want to get things back on track and hopefully build up the trust, not only with us, but also the project as well,” he said.

The next town board meeting will take place Tuesday, Oct. 12, at 7 p.m. due to the Columbus Day holiday.

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