Planners debate Le Roy's proposed local law that disallows solar farms in residential, agricultural zones
Update: 4 p.m. March 19 --
Clarification in seventh paragraph, fixing Baccile's title and the number of megawatts quoted by Farnholz from 125 to 25.
Le Roy Town Supervisor James Farnholz said that while he respects the wishes of his colleagues on the town board to restrict community solar farms in residential and agricultural districts, his preference would have been finding a “middle ground” to give farmers the chance to repurpose their land.
The subject of the town’s proposed local law and zoning on solar projects was part of the agenda of Thursday night’s Genesee County Planning Board meeting via Zoom videoconferencing. Planners discussed the Le Roy Town Board’s 4-1 vote to not allow these smaller solar projects in the aforementioned designated zones.
Farnholz cast the lone vote to permit them.
“We’ve been working on this commercial solar for the last two and a half years … and I see that farmers are getting on in years and nobody is taking over the farm, and they want the opportunity to make some money,” Farnholz said when contacted by telephone on Friday. “I didn’t want to be the guy that tells them no.”
He said the proposed local law and zoning would allow community solar in areas that are zoned ground-mounted, industrial and interchange zones. In areas that are zoned commercial, that solar would have to be roof mounted.
Farnholz said a “couple of good reasons” factored into the other board members’ decisions.
No Room at the Inn
“Part of the reasoning, as we were told by Ty Baccile, project manager, solar development for Clean Choice Energy, and several others, was that the grid station here in Le Roy could only take, I believe it was 25 megawatts,” Farnholz said. “Which, basically, would mean there would be five farmers or landowners who could have 25-acre separate parcels of solar (at 5 megawatts each) on their land. And those five spots were already taken up in the queue for the grid.”
He said the other factor in the town’s comprehensive plan and agricultural land protection was just that – to protect the farmland.
Additionally, Farnholz pointed out New York State’s increased involvement in siting huge solar projects, such as the ones moving forward in Byron and Elba.
“Once it gets beyond a certain size, and I believe that it is 25 megawatts, it essentially will fall under the state Siting Board, which will make the decisions on it. It kind of bypasses your local zoning,” Farnholz explained.
“Given the political climate between New York State and the federal government on green energy, my personal view is that I would rather find a middle ground than have something forced on us. I’d rather give somebody 40 acres than have them come in and do 500 and not have any voice in it whatsoever.”
Shutting Out the Farmers?
During the planning board meeting, Baccile said he “wanted to share our concerns that this law as it was voted on it would cancel the opportunity in the R-A district for large farmers who wanted to co-locate maybe 30 or 40 acres of solar for community solar … to generate revenue and keep things on the farm going.”
“Basically, as it was voted, it's going to take that away from farmers who had come to the meeting and expressed that this would be a good way for them to support their farm,” he said.
Genesee County Planning Director Felipe Oltramari agreed that it “definitely is not the most solar friendly of local laws, but noted that it is the town board’s prerogative.
“They can decide as, as the elected representatives of Le Roy whether to he pursue, just as (the Town of) Stafford did, a local law that's more restrictive or less friendly to solar development …,” he said.
Oltramari then gave a less than enthusiastic review of wording in the Town of Le Roy’s proposed local law and zoning on solar, making observations that Farnholz said he can’t dispute.
The planning director said he wasn’t on board with the “definitions” in the text or the way that town officials determined the total surface area of a potential solar farm.
“The Town of Le Roy did not follow some of the state models, so the language is a little rough and just needs to be refined,” Oltramari said, adding that the zoning regulation lists multiple names for the same thing, such as “major solar collection system, major system, commercial use minor solar collection system, and ground-mounted solar energy systems. It makes it confusing …”
Definitions Section Needs Revision
Oltramari, in a letter to the town board, said the various terms make it hard to read and understand, and suggested settling on one term and using it throughout.
On the issue of the allowed total surface area, he said “this one can become problematic because it has a potential (where) people are going to basically ask for a lot of variances compared to most solar laws that I’ve seen used.”
He said that most laws figure in equipment pads, posts, foundations of the solar panels and the panels themselves when determining the percentage of coverage requirements.
“When you include the area of the panels it's going to become problematic and you end up creating, basically having to acquire, these large parcels so that only a portion of them will be covered by solar panels and so you end up with a lot of wasted land,” he said. “And that is probably too small to farm or too inconvenient to farm and it sort of gets wasted.”
Oltramari suggested that Le Roy use the New York State model, which includes the footers of the panels, the equipment pads and any paved roads in the lot coverage.
Farnholz had no issue with Oltramari’s suggestions to revise the definitions section and the determination of the permitted total surface area.
“Actually, we discussed that at our meeting last night and agreed that it was problematic and when it does come back from there, we’ll remove that,” he said. “That will be corrected.”
County planners reommended approval of the town’s zoning regulations as long as the revisions outlined in the letter from the planning department are considered (and applied).