The Shawangunk Town Board is moving closer to approving legislation that would regulate solar developments in the municipality, as the council refined the proposed local law at its meeting on Thursday evening. The public hearing on the law opened during the board’s meeting on Feb. 1, and at last week’s session the board revealed minor tweaks to the law based on feedback from residents.
The latest version of the law reiterates that all large-scale solar farms in the town would be limited to 20 acres, which would not allow for the proposed 94-acre project on the Borden Home Farm property. A passage was added to the purpose and intent section of the bill to further clarify the point of the local law. “The Town Board further finds and determines that large-scale solar systems shall continue to be prohibited within the ridge stewardship, zones RS1, RS2 and the Borden Home Farm Historic overlay (BH-O) zoning districts, as these lands are previously determined to be unique and of heightened sensitivity in the town,” the proposed law states. “Additionally, large-scale solar systems will continue to be prohibited in the various business, commercial and industrial zoning districts within the town, so that these new lands may be developed for those uses which increase the town’s commercial base.”
The public hearing will remain open through the board’s next meeting on March 15, and could continue into April if the board does not close the hearing and vote on the law during its next session. “We just refined it, they’re not substantial changes,” Shawangunk Supervisor John Valk explained of the amendments to the bill. “They’re insignificant changes that could be debated, and that’s why we’re carrying the public hearing over so people can still make comments. If there were major changes we would re-advertise it and have another public hearing. We’re just making clarifications on the law.”
During the March 1 meeting, the board also dealt with the issues of setbacks for solar units placed in residents’ backyards. The council determined that a minimum setback of 35 feet from surrounding properties will be enforced, and ground-mounted solar panels can be placed on the property no closer than the front of the house.
When the public hearing for the solar law opened last month, residents at the board meeting were united in their opposition to amending the law to allow for the Borden solar development with the Geronimo Energy company, but the developers continued to press for the project at Thursday’s meeting. Attorney Kyle Van De Water of the Corbally, Gartland and Rappleyea law firm in Dutchess County, who was recently hired by the Donner family to represent the interest of the Borden site owners and to advocate for the solar project, argued on behalf of the proposal. “My client has been a landowner in this town for decades, since 1968, and they’ve been good neighbors to this community,” Van De Water told the board. “They’ve paid their taxes and they haven’t done anything with regard to their property that’s offensive in terms of letting it become overgrown. They’ve maintained their property for decades. They’ve been good neighbors to you all as a community, and what they’re asking is that they just get treated fairly.”
The lawyer argued that the proposed solar farm would be beneficial to the community. “We’re not drilling, we’re not mining, we’re not fracking,” Van De Water noted. “We’re not doing something that would negatively affect the neighbors. We’re doing something that is environmentally sound.”
Van De Water asked the board to slow down the legislative process on the law, which has been in the works for over a year. The attorney also argued that the language in the proposed law would amount to a solar farm embargo on the Borden property. “The way this law stands is that it’s essentially a ban,” Van De Water told the board. “It’s going to prohibit my client from placing these solar panels in accordance with the plan with the solar energy company. That’s just not fair for our client. They deserve to be able to go through the process to ensure that everything they’re doing is in accordance with the comprehensive plan of this community, to ensure that the Borden Home Farm Historic overlay district is kept and maintained intact with regard to the scenic historical watershed integrity and the environmental integrity of that area.”
Councilman Matthew Watkins disagreed with the idea that the town is imposing a solar farm ban on the Borden site, noting that the current town law prohibits large-scale installations as it is, and that the proposed law is meant to open the town up for more solar development as long as the project is no more than 20 acres.
Valk added that there are other parties interested in developing solar farms in the town that would fit within the limits of the proposed local law. “We aren’t banning these in town,” he said during the meeting. “We expect as soon as this law is passed, there’s going to be an application in front of the Planning Board and they’ll go about the process of approving it. I expect after that one they’ll be a few others too. They’ll be placed in appropriate areas, and they may impact those neighbors in those areas too, but the Planning Board will have to deal with that. We’re not banning it. It’s not allowed now.”
While the Borden project developers have promoted the benefits to the community the 94-acre solar project could bring, like the establishment of a community trails and dog park, resident Debbie Mack argued that the large development could do more harm than good in the town. “I don’t know what it’s going to do to the wildlife or the value of my home if I decide to sell,” she told the board. “We don’t care about a dog park. We don’t care about a path around the perimeter. We already walk on our roads and let our dogs out. We have a rail trail that you guys made for us. It doesn’t have a place in our neighborhood. It doesn’t fit. It’s not the place. Take it somewhere where there’s acres without homes across the street where you have to worry about buffering and wildlife and putting up trees so we don’t see it. That’s where it belongs. In the open air. Not across the street from my house.”
By Ted Remsnyder