YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, N.Y. - Opponents of a proposed solar law got in front of the issue last week, making their objections clear to the Town Board before it even had a chance to review a final draft of it.
If a resident wishes to put solar panels on their house, Paul Moskowitz told the board during courtesy of the floor at its regular meeting Tuesday, June 18, “We don’t need this law. We can do it today.”
Moskowitz, a member of the town’s Advisory Committee on Open Space, contended that the draft of the law “does not mention commercial zones,” and supposed that as a result, an entity such as the JV Mall could even install panels.
“My conclusion after reading the solar law is that it only does one thing: It’s in the aid of the interest of a corporation in Colorado that wishes to scrub clean 29 acres of forest because that’s a convenient way to install their panels.”
But to do so, he said, “These 29 acres are on residential-zoned property,” declaring, “This is an outrage.”
Referring to a site on Underhill Avenue said to be among those considered for a large array of solar panels, or solar farm, he noted the slopes were 15 to 25 percent. “If you take all those trees away, scrub it clean, besides interfering with the trees’ ability to absorb carbon dioxide to maintain a habitat, to prevent flooding and erosion, what you’re going to have is all that hillside coming down.
“It might not happen, but I wouldn’t want to take that risk.”
Grace Caporino, following Moskowitz to the microphone, pointed to the town’s motto hanging on the wall behind the council’s table, “Progress with Preservation.”
“Preservation means the existing wooded, pastoral environment we have,” she said. “The proposed law has no respect for residential wooded areas. The corporate proposal is to build. I’m asking you to think about the town. Protect the environment.”
But during the board’s work session discussion of the final draft of the solar law, the subject of a public hearing to be held on Tuesday, July 9, Director of Planning John Tegeder corrected some misconceptions and misperceptions about the proposal, which has been under review in tandem with new tree regulations to avoid conflicts between them and other laws on the books.
“It’s not correct that this does not allow solar in commercial areas, or zone. It allows it as accessory uses or structures,” such as on roofs and above parking spaces. “It doesn’t allow it as a single use on a vacant piece of commercial land. I think that would be crazy to do.”
The proposed law would allow solar arrays as a principal use in residential areas, but would restrict them to properties a minimum of 2 acres, Town Attorney Richard Abbate further clarified.
“The Planning Board has said they don’t want it [solar farms] on any residential” property, Councilwoman Alice Roker said. “I would beg to differ that there are various categories of residential” properties they might be well-suited for.
“It should only be done if you can’t see it,” Tegeder agreed.
Regarding the Underhill location, he said it would be more difficult to screen an array there than on other properties, such as those on Foothill Street, one of which has been eyed by Clean Energy Collective.
“If you do it correctly,” he said, “you’re screening them from the street. The impact at play here is the visual impact other than the removal of the tree canopy. Now, you have to remember, if you don’t have this use, you will get other uses, which is a subdivision, a farm, agriculture.”
And, he said, “A farm and a solar farm are less permanent than a residential subdivision and so, therefore, you will have the opportunity, when it’s decommissioned, to regenerate the site, reuse it in another way.”
Tegeder also said it was “the least industrial use you can imagine.”
“It’s quiet; it doesn’t produce pollution; it’s clean energy…and has a smaller carbon footprint than better energy-producing options for the planet.”
At this point, Town Supervisor Ilan Gilbert noted that a prospective solar farm developer, which he did not identify, had sent a message that it wants to be “excellent corporate neighbors,” estimating that payments through a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement could result in more than $1 million in revenue for the town over the course of a lease.
When Roker noted some may accuse the developer of doing so to “buy” votes, Gilbert said he wanted to be transparent.
“I think just as the wetlands law, it’s not a prohibiting law but a permitting law,” Roker said.
Councilman Ed Lachterman repeated his concern about the view of such a farm on Underhill from such scenic locations as Turkey Hill Mountain, saying, “There’s some sites that you need to make sure are protected.” However, later in the discussion, he conceded, “There’s going to be a lot of instances where you don’t know it exists.”
“The question is whether or not you’re going to allow a solar farm,” Tegeder said.
Counter to the suggestion earlier by Moskowitz, Roker said, “I don’t think we just do a blanket ‘no.’”
Tegeder and Abbate said the board had discretion, as well, over how large a property must be to accommodate an array, possibly increasing the minimum acreage from 2 acres to 5 or 10 acres, and how much of the property might be covered. The draft limits it to 80 percent of the property, but that could be reduced further, to 60 percent or less.
The Town Board last week put all on notice that it would hold a public hearing on proposed tree regulations on Tuesday, July 9, in response, members said, to concerns that a hearing planned for July 2, in the middle of the July Fourth holiday week, might prevent vacationing residents from having their say.
The hearing will be held in tandem with another on proposed regulations for solar installations. The board has been vetting regulations pertaining to both for the past year to iron out any conflicts between them, considering the different goals of each, as well as with any laws already on the books.
But before the board began its review of the final draft of the tree law during a work session on Tuesday, June 18, the tree law that’s already on the books is the one that raised an issue.
During the regular meeting held before its work session that evening, the board convened a public hearing on an application by Victor Conte, of Conte Homes Inc., to build a single-family home on 9 acres Conte owns at 1550 Journeys End Road in Croton-on-Hudson. Although the initial site plan met all the zoning requirements, the home’s location was adjusted because it would otherwise have left the homeowner without a backyard, as it lined up with a woodland buffer and would also have required extensive grading and retaining walls, according to Joseph Riina of Site Design Consultants, who represented Conte. That adjustment, however, required a variance because it would encroach on a front-yard setback of 100 feet from the center line of Journeys End, he said.
“We’re not asking for wetland permits, but an excavation permit, a tree permit,” Riina said.
Susan Siegel, a former town supervisor and member of Advocates for a Better Yorktown, a proponent of the new tree regulations, emphasized she had no problem with the application but with compliance with the current tree law.
Noting that 30 trees would be felled to accommodate the plan, she contended the current law requires the trees to be cut down be indicated, or marked, on the site plan.
“I haven’t seen that.”
Furthermore, the application was not referred to the Tree Conservation Advisory Commission, “but why do we have the tree conservation commission if nothing gets referred to them?” she asked. She also suggested that the board “might want a mitigation plan.”
“In regard to that,” Riina said, “I think the board needs to consider the expense to survey 30 trees, to have an arborist go out there and locate the trees.”
Riina said the developer has “minimized the amount of disturbance,” which he estimated was about two-thirds of an acre. He said the trees had been marked in the field, which town engineer Michael Quinn later confirmed, and that “this property is as-of-right development.”
“I have to agree with Joe,” Councilwoman Alice Roker said, adding that the proposed tree law should have been distributed “to people like you,” from “the business world.”
Linda Miller, who authored the original draft of the new tree law and has been shepherding it through the review process, also noted that the board, “as the approval authority,” could require mitigation.
But, she said, “If you’re going to make an intelligent decision, you need to know what you are mitigating for…This is a public hearing so citizens have the opportunity to come and comment on this. Where are we supposed to get the information about the trees?”
The board agreed with Roker when she said, “I can understand if we’re talking about a development, in terms of trees, but not a single-family house.”
“We can’t just keep beating people over the head,” Councilman Ed Lachterman said before the board closed the hearing and unanimously approved the application.
During the work session review of the draft, Director of Planning John Tegeder said of the major changes between the first draft and the final version, “It has been rewritten in a way to eliminate ambiguity, conflict within the law, and make it easier to administrate and easier to enforce.”
In essence, he said, a permit would be required for the removal of 10 protected trees, which is defined as those with an 8-inch diameter at breast height (dbh), in a calendar year. It further defines a protected woodland as an area of 10,000 square feet.
Tegeder said some threshold protections were modified for consistency’s sake and “removed some of the onerous aspects” and to prevent “double-dipping in permit fees.”
Moreover, he said, “Mitigation in this law that’s in front of you now is more of a menu of choices; you’re not handcuffed to do only one type of mitigation.”
“Mitigation is required for disturbance in a protected woodland,” explained Miller, who had joined Tegeder at the council table for the discussion. “It’s also required for land conversion, removing a protected woodland of a certain size and replacing it with something where the woodland cannot ever regenerate itself.”
When asked by Town Attorney Richard Abbate whether the board wanted to attach a permit fee, members of the board nixed the idea.
The discussion then segued to proposed amendments of chapters in the stormwater and wetlands laws prompted by the proposed tree law. Councilmembers’ concerns focused on whether the amendments were necessary and whether they would further complicate the process. After hearing again from Tegeder and Miller on these matters, the board decided to advertise the draft as it was, with the ability to make any necessary changes at the public hearing.