YORKTOWN, N.Y. - An effort to repeal and replace a 2016 law regulating the removal of trees and another to create regulations governing the installation of solar arrays met the same fate last week.
At the end of separate public hearings on drafts of both laws, they were adjourned.
The tree law needs further tweaking, the Town Board determined at its work session Tuesday, July 9, while, in the opinion of Advocates for a Better Yorktown, at least, the draft of the solar law needs more than that.
“What’s clear from tonight’s hearing is the board needs to go back to the drawing board and consider how and where the town should regulate large-scale solar farms,” Susan Siegel, a former town supervisor and member of ABY, said during the hearing on the latter.
The board and other governing authorities have been vetting both regulations for the past year to iron out any conflicts between them, considering their different goals, as well as redundancies and conflicts with laws already on the books. While the creation and review of the solar law has been fairly straightforward—authored by the town’s attorney and its director of planning—the tree law has undergone revision after revision courtesy of its primary author, Linda Miller of the ABY, and a committee formed in October to reach a consensus on what should be included and/or required, from determining thresholds for permitting to its administration and enforcement.
Before opening the hearing on the final draft of the tree law, council members shared some of their thoughts.
“The one thing that I’ve said from the beginning, I’m not into taking away property rights, an owner’s property rights,” Councilwoman Alice Roker said, speaking to one issue that has been raised at previous meetings. “I’m a homeowner, so I wouldn’t want mine taken away.”
She also spoke to another concern: the length of the proposed law.
“I think if you have a law that you’re putting on the books, it should be understandable; it should make sense and the town should be able to, the various boards should be able to administer the law,” she said. “There shouldn’t be a law with a portion of it on the books but no one knows how you administer it, and I think that that’s a problem with the older tree law and it might still be a problem in the current law.”
“I sort of echo the sentiments of Alice,” Councilman Ed Lachterman said. “I’m a firm believer in you own your property and what’s on your property. As long as the law is not too onerous, as long as the law is policeable,” he would support it.
Town Supervisor Ilan Gilbert said that at the previous evening’s Planning Board meeting, residents had asked what had triggered the efforts to overhaul the tree law and create a solar law. The latter, he said, was triggered by parties interested in building commercial solar farms.
As for the former, he said he believed that the law enacted in 2010 may have been too onerous and the current law, enacted in 2016, removed some protections.
“I believe that the reason why we’re readdressing the tree law is because we need to find that happy medium that both protects the environment and also protects the citizens’ rights and the property rights.”
Director of Planning John Tegeder opened the hearing by presenting a general overview of the proposed law and the process undertaken to produce the document in its final form. Among the main differences between the current law and the draft, he said, was introducing the concept of a protected woodland.
When Roker asked how the average homeowner would know whether they have a woodland or a wetland, he said, “They should look through the law and make a list of questions and then call whoever is administering the law at the time,” evoking laughter from Roker and some in the audience.
“That’s what’s going to take place,” Tegeder said, “and that is what essentially happens with the laws. You read these laws, they’re very arcane and mundane and to understand them, you really need just a short conversation with somebody that does it every day.”
Richard Fon, chairman of the Planning Board, detailed its objections in a memo it wrote on the proposed law. In it, the board contended the mitigation issue might prove to “be onerous and cumbersome to the average homeowner” and that other aspects could create confusion and result in unequal application of permit requirements. It also contends that the administration would require “significant staff and board resources that are currently lacking.”
But much of the hearing was a recap of issues that have been raised during previous discussions.
“The major difference between this law and the current law is that this law actually lives up to its name and its intent by protecting woodland ecosystems as well as individual trees, and I think that this is the significant important part of this law,” Miller told the board. And she noted the benefits of such protection, such as maintaining a thriving biodiversity and ensuring structural stability.
John Kincart, a member of the Planning Board, was among those who faulted the proposed law.
“I think it’s going to create confusion and I think it’s going to create animosity among neighbors,” he said. He also said it would prove to be too onerous even for developers.
“I do not believe the replacement of the current law is warranted in any way,” said Joseph Riina of Site Design Consultants, whom Roker had asked at the last board meeting to review the draft and return with comments on it from a professional’s perspective. “First, I do not believe that the trees, woodlands or open space in this town are in jeopardy of being depleted or their health affected…Secondly, there is a process in place where the impacts of development are responsibly reviewed by the various town boards and staff, including the removal of trees. This law is a duplication of that process and the extreme efforts put in by these professionals that are entrusted with doing what is best for the town of Yorktown. I ask the Town Board to leave the law in place as it currently exists.”
Noting the draft of the solar law was “more simplistic in its writing and its length,” Tegeder detailed its requirements for small-scale arrays of solar panels and large-scale arrays.
Small-scale arrays would produce no more than 12 kilowatts per hour of energy and applications would be administered by the building inspector. Large-scale arrays, above that kilowatt threshold, would be allowed in single-, two- and three-family zones “provided they are properly and completely screened from view,” Tegeder said.
Gilbert noted that the Planning Board feels the draft of the solar law “needs to be further researched and reviewed.”
Among that board’s concerns is the town’s inexperience with solar projects and it is urging the board to review actual projects and their impacts. It also recommends the minimum two-acre requirement be raised to 10 acres, and lot coverage be reduced from 80 percent to 60 percent. In addition, the board declared that projects in commercial zones should only be allowed as an accessory to a main use.
Among the supporters of the draft was Patty Peckham, who owns Arcadia Farm and would like to install a solar array on a part of her property that has fallen into disuse.
“The economic reality is that land will be developed, but what kind of development?” Peckham asked. “Housing and commercial buildings increase carbon emissions and are a permanent land disruption.” Solar farms, on the other hand, cause minimal land disruption and when decommissioned, the land can be reverted back to its original use.
“As far as development choices go, solar is the environmental winner,” she said. “As far as economic benefits go, clean energy products are job creators and communities of solar farms are getting a 10 percent decrease in their electric bill. This is a win for Yorktown.”
Among a handful of dissenters was Paul Moskowitz, chairman of the Yorktown Energy Advisory Committee, who called attention to the sites under consideration by Clean Energy Collective for commercial solar arrays—Underhill Avenue, for one, where he said 95 percent of its slopes are above 15 percent grade. He also presented slides showing the Underhill Avenue site and another with a doctored portion said to represent what the solar array would look like as seen from a spot along Turkey Mountain Trail.
“What this law does by allowing solar farms on each and every residential property in Yorktown, as long as they meet the size requirement, is in fact you’re rezoning the whole town and I think that you’re passing the responsibility of controlling the consequences onto the Planning Board,” he said. “Do we want to turn all of our neighborhoods into quasi-residential and industrial sites? It will look like New Jersey before we’re finished.”
Moskowitz and others also cited alternative locations for solar arrays, such as in unused parking lots and on top of commercial car ports. Some also encouraged the board to increase the kilowatt threshold because it might limit solar collection efficiency should the technology be improved.
Several members of ABY spoke of that organization’s support for the law, albeit with some reservations. Of those, Siegel suggested alternatives to the path the Town Board was on.
“The board is basically a rezoning the property from residential to commercial,” she contended. “So, some would say, you’re going as far as ‘downzoning’ the property…so why not call it like it is, a rezoning, and go that route for solar farms instead of an open-ended law that says any undeveloped residentially zoned parcel above a certain size can become a commercial use?”
The board instead could create a new zoning district or even an “energy generation overlay zone modeled after the existing agricultural overly zone,” she said. And she urged the board to involve residents in the process as it retools the draft.
“Let’s work together to craft a better law that’s consistent with Yorktown’s goal,” she said.