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‘What are we waiting for?’: Sheridan residents support solar project

OBSERVER Photos by Braden Carmen Pictured is the design for a 20-megawatt solar energy system, which spans from Newell Road to Cook Road, in the Town of Sheridan. The project was designed by TRC engineering firm and would be owned and operated by SunEast Kingbird Solar, LLC.

SHERIDAN — The topic of sustainable energy has been a contentious issue in Western New York in recent years. But at a public hearing in Sheridan regarding a sizable solar energy project, many in the audience voiced their support for the proposed project.

SunEast Kingbird Solar, LLC has designed a 20-megawatt solar energy system, which spans from Newell Road to Cook Road, in the Town of Sheridan. The energy system would be located north of the thruway exit and south of the airport. The project was designed by TRC engineering firm.

Kristin McCarthy, SunEast Development Manager, described the project to an audience of approximately 20 residents of the Town, in addition to the Town Board. McCarthy fielded questions from the Board and the public throughout a public hearing that lasted exactly one hour in the renovated Sheridan Community Center.

“We are committed to working closely with the Town of Sheridan and its community,” McCarthy said.

The Town Board and the audience were presented with visual simulations of how the project will appear from different viewpoints in the area once completed.

Kristin McCarthy, SunEast Development Manager, presented a proposed 20-megawatt solar energy system in the Town of Sheridan at a recent public hearing

Much of the hesitation regarding the project came from residents near the access road to the facility, voicing a concern of how disruptive the project will be throughout its construction. However, the majority of comments from the public were positive.

“It’s a great project and it should go forward,” one resident said. Another resident asked the Town Board, “What are we waiting for?”

William Wallace voiced support for the project on behalf of his brother, Gerald Wallace, a landowner participating in the project. He thanked the Town Board for “the opportunity to be involved in the project as an individual landowner.”

Another resident called it “a great project” and commended the developers for their efforts to limit the visual impact of the project, as opposed to wind energy turbines throughout the region.

Town Board member Colleen Yerico also brought up wind turbines during the hearing when inquiring about where the energy would go and what benefits the residents would receive. McCarthy responded that the energy produced would enter the energy grid, and that no promises related to pricing impact will be made.

However, in addition to the tax payments the Town would receive from the land being leased for the project, Kingbird Solar would also enter into a Host Community Agreement with the Town of Sheridan. The agreement would ensure an annual payment to the Town, proposed at $2,000 per megawatt annually, at a rate of $40,000 each year in added revenue to the Town. In addition to the temporary jobs created during construction, the project would also create one full-time position to monitor and maintain the property throughout operation, with remote monitoring offsite, as well.

A decommissioning plan for the project was presented to the Sheridan Town Board and Town Attorney Jeff Passafaro for review, as was the project’s site plan, special use permit request, and a request for a variance.

If approved, the project would be located across eight parcels of land totaling 218.8 acres to be leased under the same company, SunEast Kingbird Solar, LLC. The project would utilize panels with anti-reflective coating, which track the sun throughout the day. Because of landscaping for visual screening, the panels would be obstructed from view throughout a good portion of each day.

Kingbird Solar claims the project will require minimal tree clearing and minimal impact to wetlands in the area. Stormwater will be treated onsite. The project was designed across multiple parcels of land to avoid wetlands and tree clearing as much as possible while still meeting the 20-megawatt capacity of the project. A 7-foot fence would be installed around the perimeter of the project.

While addressing the required Environmental Assessment Form, Kingbird Solar has consulted with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service related to species native to the project area, with no objections to the project. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the New York State Historic Preservation Office also offered no objections to the project.

Code Enforcement Officer James Crowell stated the Federal Aviation Administration deemed the project as no hazard to air navigation and the Department of Agriculture and Markets also shared no concerns with the project. Crowell stated the Chautauqua County Department of Planning and Development deemed the project “a matter of local concern.” The Sheridan Town Planning and Zoning Board cited “a number of concerns” but after a year of discussion, the issues were resolved.

The project adheres to most aspects of the Town laws and regulations, such as setback requirements of 250 feet from public right of ways, 150-foot side yard setbacks from non-participating parcels of land with structures, 50-foot side yard setbacks from vacant non-participating parcels, and 150-foot rear yard setbacks. The project also complies with the Town’s regulation stating the project must not cover more than 50% of the land in use. The project would utilize 100.64 acres (46%) of the 218.8 acres leased from the participating landowners.

The need for a variance pertains to the Town’s requirement that a project must be located on a single parcel of land. The Town has three laws in place regarding solar energy — passed in 2017, 2020, and 2022 — in which the Town reserves the right to grant a variance if “good cause” is shown. Kingbird Solar stressed to the Town Board that the project is located on so many parcels to minimize visual and environmental impacts, while also allowing multiple landowners the ability to benefit from the project. Kingbird Solar would be leasing the land on agreements that span the entire life of the project, as the sole owner of the permit and will be solely responsible for compliance and payments to the Town.

The project will be decommissioned and the land will be returned to its previous state after the project’s useful life concludes, at a maximum term of 40 years. Kingbird Solar is solely responsible for the decommissioning of the project. If it cannot perform its responsibility, the Town will be granted funds from an escrow account, bond, or letter of credit to ensure the project is decommissioned at no added cost to the Town. Funds will be set aside at 125% of the estimated decommissioning cost, including a 15% contingency fund. The plan will be updated every four years to reflect accurate pricing.

The project will not have battery storage onsite, and its design complies with the New York State Chapter 5 Fire Safety Code. An emergency response plan will also be provided to local first responders and training will be offered.

Now that the public hearing was held, the Town Board has the discretion to take action on the Special Use Permit application, and the requested variance attached to the project, at a public Town Board meeting. The next Town Board meeting is on Wednesday. With less than a week’s time between the public hearing and the next regular meeting, the Board could choose to delay a decision to the next regular meeting in July.

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