Zone defense Dunkirk uneasy regarding solar farm approach

OBSERVER Photo by Braden Carmen From left to right: Town of Dunkirk Code Enforcement Officer Ryan Mourer, Town Board member Dr. Jay Bishop, and Town Board member Jean Crane watch as Victor Ciaccia, Project Manager at Norbut Solar Farms, presents a proposed solar energy project in the town.

The latest proposal of what has become a series of solar energy projects in the town of Dunkirk received more pushback than its predecessors did from the Town Board and officials at a recent board meeting.

Victor Ciaccia, Project Manager at Norbut Solar Farms, presented plans for a 10-megawatt AC community solar generation project on a parcel of 90 acres located on Willow Road, east of Temple Road and south of the railroad. The project would be located on the adjoining land of Roberto Fred Farms in the town of Dunkirk.

However, in its proposal, a unique approach to avoid requesting variances to allow the project to meet the requirements of the town’s solar zoning law made officials uneasy.

Joining Ciaccia on behalf of Norbut Solar Farms was attorney Ashley Champion, who explained the company’s intent to utilize a Planned Urban Development classification to give the project the green light. The land discussed for the project is in an agricultural zoning district. Ciaccia and Champion both stated that the project would be consistent with the town’s Zoning Code and its Comprehensive Plan requirements for classification.

“You could approve it with whatever constraints you want around it, and only that project is permitted within that zone,” Champion said. “… It is providing the town the ability to tailor an approval to a specific project.”

Code Enforcement Officer Ryan Mourer said, “I would make a submittal of a recommendation of not re-zoning, that way we don’t violate the re-zoning laws. It’s something that we’ve never done that I’m aware of, and I don’t think it’s something that we want to get in the habit of, re-zoning for specific businesses.”

“We’re not in the custom of doing that,” town Supervisor Juan Pagan added.

Champion clarified that legally, the avenue Norbut Solar Farms is pursuing is not re-zoning the area itself, but rather creating a zone within the district that pertains only to the proposed project.

“It’s not in violation of the code to re-zone, it’s actually expressly contemplated in your code to create these planned development districts,” Champion responded. “You can basically think of them as a floating zone. … What you’re able to do is to create this floating zone, this planned development district, that is specifically tailored to a proposed use or application for development.”

Mourer responded to Champion, “By my definition and my limited education, it’s spot zoning. … But I don’t make that decision.”

Town Attorney Jeff Passafaro then responded, “It is not spot zoning. It may appear to be, but it is not, legally. The approach being made here is a different approach than you are currently engaged in (on Williams Street Extension) … It is a policy matter for the Town Board.”

Ciaccia stated Norbut Solar Farms, based out of Rochester, has developed 300 megawatts of solar generation on approximately 1,800 acres of land across the state. He also stated that a difference between Norbut Solar Farms and many other solar energy generation companies is that Norbut purchases the land on which its projects are housed, throughout the life of the project. “That way, we become permanent members of all the communities that we develop in,” Ciaccia said.

No official site plans have been submitted to the town, as the representatives attended the meeting to receive feedback on whether to proceed with the project and what guidance the Town Board could provide.

“We thank you very much for coming before the board and stating your concerns and case. We’ll take it under consideration,” Pagan said.

Champion then asked the town if it had any interest in entertaining the project Norbut Solar Farms proposed.

“If it’s something that this Town Board is in no way interested in entertaining, we have other municipalities where we can be spending our time and resources. We don’t want to be unnecessarily pursuing this and wasting your time if it’s a hard no,” Champion said. “… If you all are convinced that this is not an opportunity that stands a chance here in the town of Dunkirk, we would appreciate to know that.”

Town Board member Priscilla Penfold responded, “Right now, I personally feel that it would be a ‘hard no,’ but I’m also open to listening to my constituents here and hearing their feelings.”

Pagan said, “We’ll take this under advisement.”


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