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Panel seeks more protection against solar projects

By GREGORY BACON

gbacon@observertoday.com

A Chautauqua County advisory group wants officials to protect the county against the plethora of newly proposed solar projects once these projects are no longer useful.

Steve Kimball, chairman of the county Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board, sent a letter to the county Legislature regarding concerns of renewable energy projects on agricultural lands.

“The board takes seriously its charge to protect priority farmland and to support agriculture as a viable economic driver within the county,” he wrote.

As such, the board has identified the following goals pertaining to the siting of renewable energy projects:

¯ Aim to protect agricultural resources;

¯ Aim to protect prime agriculture soils; and,

¯ Aim to protect the county, municipalities, and taxpayers from additional financial burdens.

“The board would like to see the legislature take action that, for projects receiving public funding and incentives, will guarantee the removal of large-scale industrial projects once they are no longer in use and sufficiently ensure that soils can be restored to their previous state,” Kimball wrote.

He said the farmland protection board has identified the following desired outcomes:

¯ Keep productive soils and priority farmland in production;

¯ Ensure soils are restored to their original productivity after the lifespan of these projects; and,

¯ Ensure developers and operators are held responsible for the financial and physical removal of projects after their lifespan and/or after a period of no generation.

Kimball said the board recommends the legislature do the following:

¯ Pass a local law to sufficiently address desired outcomes; and

¯ Create a template to aid municipalities in planning for these concerns.

“With any action taken, the board ultimately would like it to guarantee that the fiscal and physical responsibility of decommissioning and reclamation of these sites are born upon the developer or operator. Further, the board would hope the actions would discourage siting projects on lands that would have negative cumulative economic impacts on the sustainability of agriculture in our county,” he wrote.

The full legislature did not address the letter during the September meeting. The letter was discussed during the legislature’s Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting earlier this month.

During that meeting, Rebecca Wurster, a special projects coordinator with the Department of Planning and Development, shared that there have been a number of solar projects that have been proposed.

“Some of these projects are located on prime, agricultural soils,” she said.

Because of that, the board wants to make sure there are good protections in place for the county’s resources. “Decommissioning plans are really an important piece to bringing these projects to our communities and having a good plan in place for decommissioning and recycling of these solar panels,” she said.

Dan Steward with the Farmland Protection board was also in attendance at the committee meeting. He noted that in the agricultural community, there’s a philosophy of who ever can farm a plot of land most profitably should do so. “They can afford it because they’ve been profitable. They’ve managed it well,” he said.

Solar companies, however, come in and offer much more money than farmers can because of governmental subsidies. “They’re bidding up land in the area. There’s been offers five or six times an acre rent annually that they’re putting offers out there for,” he said.

Steward estimates that about two-thirds of all farmland in Chautauqua County is rented, so those farmers can’t compete.

He also alleges that solar companies are able to manipulate contracts to their benefit. “These companies that are coming in, they’re mostly hiring people from outside. They’re investing in these solar arrays and usually there’s some kind of strategy or a way of getting out of actually reclaiming them,” he said.

Steward is concerned because there’s been a history of renewable energy projects that have failed. Some examples he gave include the wind towers that were installed by the Thruway entrances in Western New York, the willow biomass projects in Westfield and Ripley that failed, and the passive solar hot water heaters that were installed in a number of farms in the county that haven’t worked.

Steward doesn’t believe solar is the answer for renewable energy. “From our perspective as farmers here, we’re at a critical point here. These incentives are going on right now. Offers are being made right now,” he said.

Steward believes the county needs to offer more guidance to local governments. “People are signing up for these things and all of our townships are scrambling because these projects come in to try to set up some kind of legislation or some kind of rules for it with the zoning boards and every single one of them have to figure it out on their own,” he said.

In Niagara County, their legislature passed a resolution requiring that the true cost of recycling these projects be incorporated into the price when bonds are set up. Steward believes that legislation should be considered in Chautauqua County. “I think you need to take some action or direct some resources in making sure that our farmland is protected because New York state certainly isn’t,” he said.

Mark Geise, director of the county Industrial Development Agency and deputy county executive for economic development, said decommissioning bonds are required for all solar projects. Still he believes it could be beneficial for the county to offer some guidance to municipalities. “If we had a template that we could share with them of ‘best practices type of template,’ I would think that would be helpful,” he said.

Geise’s concern is that the county Planning Department aren’t experts in solar projects. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority is whom they rely upon, but Steward doesn’t think NYSERDA is trustworthy.

Steward admits he doesn’t have a solution, but wants the county Legislature to get more involved in the process. “I want you guys to give your staff some resources and some time to look into all these questions,” he said.

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