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Excelsior Energy Center LLC

'We gave it our best.' BAAS member reacts to Siting Board's approval of Town of Byron solar project

By Mike Pettinella

As part of the grassroots effort that opposed the 280-megawatt Excelsior Solar Project in the Town of Byron, Caswell Road resident Gayla Starowitz understandably is disappointed over Wednesday’s approval of the $345 million venture by the New York State Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment.

“I’m very disappointed, but I think we knew the answer because money talks,” Starowitz said this morning. “We tried our hardest. I felt that the judges’ statements were pretty much what Excelsior (Energy Center LLC) said at the last meeting and (as a result) we didn't have a chance to beat this money and beat this politics.”

Starowitz was a member of the Byron Association Against Solar organization that presented its arguments to the Siting Board over the past 2 ½ years, contending that the 1,700-acre project would negatively affect future farming and the rural character of the community, and that it was inconsistent with town and Genesee County comprehensive plans.

The Siting Board, at a hearing yesterday in Albany, voted 5-1 in favor of the project.

“I’m going to be looking at solar panels on all three sides of my house, for as far as I can see – and I’m not the only one in town in this situation,” Starowitz said. “Several acres across from my house; that’s all we’ll see, and there’s going to be a battery storage to the south of me.”

She said BAAS was in it to protect the farm land, but she also acknowledged that landowners have the right to lease their property to the solar developer.

“We don’t own the land,” she said. “So, right from the beginning, we understood that and we're not against solar, we're against massive placement in people’s front yards. It could have been put on poorer land and it could have been put way in the back where the houses aren’t going to be affected.”

Starowitz said she was proud of the grassroots effort.

“We gave it our best. The outcome wasn't what we had hoped for, but I'm proud that we took on this fight, well, that's not the right word. We took it on to be vocal and spoke up, but with all the politics, we just couldn’t stop this.”

The Batavian also reached out this morning to Ivison Road resident Jim Lamkin, who served as spokesperson for BAAS.

Byron Town Supervisor Peter Yasses called yesterday’s ruling “just a step in the process,” adding that he expects construction to start later this year.

When asked about the financial benefits to the town (as well as the Byron-Bergen Central School District and Genesee County), Yasses said the host agreement and payment in lieu of taxes settlement will start when construction starts.

The town is in line to receive $24 million over 20 years, beginning with an initial annual payment of $1.066 million and escalating by 2 percent each year.

According to figures provided by the Genesee County Economic Development Center, the solar farm will receive approximately $32.7 million in property and sales tax incentives. It will provide enhanced property tax payments via the 20-year PILOT by contributing $6,500 per megawatt/AC annually plus the 2 percent escalator.

Resulting property tax-type benefits of the project in the Town of Byron, Byron-Bergen Central Schools and Genesee County are estimated at more than $45.2 million.

Concerning the attempt by BAAS to stop, delay or modify the project, Yasses said, “They did the best they could, and I respect their thoughts and their efforts.”

BREAKING: NYS Siting Board grants final approval to 280-megawatt solar project in the Town of Byron

By Mike Pettinella

The New York State Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment minutes ago, by a 5-1 vote, approved construction of the $345 million Excelsior Energy Center 280-megawatt utility scale solar project on 1,700 acres of farmland in the Town of Byron.

The vote capped a three-year effort by Excelsior Energy to develop the solar system under Article 10 of the state’s Public Service Law – and turned aside opposition to the proposal from Byron Association Against Solar, LLC, and the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Today’s action, broadcast live on the internet from Albany, came just two days before April 8, 2022 statutory deadline.

Members of the Siting Board panel voted following a 15-minute presentation by the Hon. Gregg C. Sayre, presiding examiner for the Department of Public Service, who found that the arguments forwarded by BAAS were not strong enough to delay, alter or relocate the project.

Votes in favor of the project were cast by Tammy Mitchell, director DPS Office of Electric, Gas and Water; Louis Alexander, representing the Department of Environmental Conservation; Elizabeth Lewis-Michl, director of the Department of Health Division of Environmental Health Assessment; Vincent Ravaschiere, senior vice president at Empire State Development, and John Williams, vice president for Policy and Regulatory Affairs of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

Norman Pawlak, ad hoc member assigned to the project, cast the lone vote against the proposal.

Sayre stated that while the total project area is 3,443 acres, the “limit of disturbance for construction and operation” is 1,712 acres – with 1,629 inside the proposed project fences. He also mentioned that collection lines will be placed underground and a proposed substation and switching yard will connect the grid to a New York Power Authority 345-kilovolt transmission line nearby.

The project also includes a battery storage facility with a 20-megawatt, four-hour duration capacity, he said.

Three of the five parties in the matter – the DPS, Excelsior Energy and the Town of Byron – reached an agreement on details of the project in the fall of 2021, while the Department of Agriculture & Markets and BAAS joined together against it, including the hiring of a law firm to articulate its points to the Siting Board.

Sayre said the opposition’s key points focused on taking away much of Byron’s prime farmland, changing the “character of the community” and noncompliance with the comprehensive plans of Genesee County and the Town of Byron.

The administrative law judged addressed each one, as follows:

Using and Converting Prime Farmland

“The Department of Agriculture and Markets objected to 30 percent of the project being located on prime farmland and objected that a solar energy project constitutes a permanent conversion of farmland to non-agricultural uses. The draft order finds that the argument about permanent conversion of farmland has been considered before by the Siting Board and was rejected in the Hecate Energy Albany case decided in January of 2021,

“In that case, the Siting Board concluded that a commercial solar facility does not result in a permanent loss of farmland. Where, as in both that case, and in this case, the certificate conditions require the land to be fully restored as closely as possible to its prior condition upon decommissioning to the appropriate security for the decommissioning.

“In this case, there is some permanent loss of farmland due to access roads, and other similar construction, but it amounts to only about 31 acres, which is less than 1 percent of the project's area. The draft order also notes that the applicant has agreed to follow the Department of Agriculture & Markets guidelines for solar energy projects, which deal with construction mitigation for agricultural lands.

“The developer also has agreed to hire a health, safety and environmental manager with agricultural qualifications, as well as agreeing to various reporting requirements and coordinating requirements that involve in the future and … Department of Agriculture staff. Although the department is certainly correct, that agriculture agricultural production will be reduced in the footprint of the project for approximately 30 years, the reason behind that loss is that the property owners in question have voluntarily entered into lease agreements with the applicant.”

“BAAS offered two studies to support its position that the project will have a massive negative impact on farming in the Town of Byron. One of the reports was based on a completely erroneous number of affected acres, starting from the proposition that 3,500 acres of agricultural land would be removed from use for the life of the project. The correct acreage is 1,712 -- about half the amount in the study. That report is also deficient in using one year of crop pricing, in its analysis of impacts rather than a longer average given the price fluctuation that actually occurred over the course of several years in the town's top 10 crops.”

Destroying the ‘Small Town Feeling’

“BAAS offered the testimony of witnesses who stated that the visual impact of the project will destroy the small town feeling and tight knit community spirit of the area of the project. However, that testimony does not directly take issue with the significant visual screening measures that the applicant has agreed to take -- a fair number of plantings, the use of existing woodlands and hedgerows and other screening measures.

“The testimony also does not take direct issue with the visual impact analysis offered by the applicant that indicates that there is minimal expected visibility within the affected visual study area, which is the area within a radius of 5 miles around the fence line of a project. Under these circumstances, the draft order concludes that the BAAS testimony is overstated in claiming that the project will destroy the rural community, and finds that visual impacts have been avoided or minimized to the maximum extent practicable.”

Inconsistent with Comprehensive Plans

“The third issue in dispute is based on the testimony of a local resident who was speaking for himself, not for the town or the county, that the project is inconsistent with the town and county comprehensive plans. The resident is absolutely correct in stating that the protection of agricultural lands is listed as a goal and both of those plans.

“But the draft order finds that the argument of the project's inconsistency with these plans fails for three reasons. First, the town comprehensive plan also explicitly supports the development of clean energy resources. So, there is necessarily, as with most land use issues, some balancing required of competing goals.

“Second, the town in 2021 adopted a solar law that allows for some agricultural siting. The town found that the law was consistent with its comprehensive plan. And the county planning board implicitly found that the law was consistent with both the town and county comprehensive plans when it approved the town law. It is also noteworthy that the project disturbs less than 1 percent of the county's prime farmland.

“Third, as I noted, the … witness was speaking for himself. Neither the town or the county chose to file testimony or briefs against the project. The draft order concludes that the project is in fact not inconsistent with the town or county comprehensive plan.

“I should note that the applicant requested a waiver of 10 specific requirements of that town environmental law. The applicant produced evidence that with respect to these requirements, compliance would make it uneconomical to build the project. No party opposed those proposed waivers, and the order grants them.”

CLICK HERE for press release from the Siting Board.

Byron Town Supervisor: Host Community Benefit pact with solar company is like winning the lottery

By Mike Pettinella

Updated: May 30, 12:30 p.m., with job creation details


While acknowledging ongoing opposition and unsightly solar panels, Byron Town Supervisor Peter Yasses said the municipality has won the lottery as a result of its Host Community Benefit agreement with Excelsior Energy Center LLC – the company proposing to build a 280-megawatt solar system in the town under Article 10 of the New York State Public Service Law.

“You’ve won the lottery, but you’ve won the lottery for 20 years,” Yasses said on Friday in discussing the status of the project, which would turn 46 parcels of farmland covering about 1,600 acres into a sea of solar panels. “Every year this check comes – with a 2-percent increase. To me, that’s huge for the town.”

The check that Yasses is talking about is the $1,006,522 that Excelsior Energy would write to the town in year one of a 20-year HCB fee schedule that increases by 2 percent each year. Per the contract, the first annual check would arrive within 30 days after the start of construction.

All told, combining a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) with the Genesee County Economic Development Center, special district charges, agricultural exemption revenue and the negotiated host benefit fee, the Town of Byron – if the project receives final approval – would be on the receiving end of $24 million over the two decades.

Yasses said he and the town board took a stand to get what they felt was a fair price for the cost of losing the aesthetics of farmland and fields.

“We had to go into this with an open mind. At any means, it’s not going to be pretty for the town as far as having to look at the panels,” he said. “But it really has nothing to do with our town board. This is getting rammed down our throats by (Gov.) Andrew Cuomo through Article 10.”

The Article 10 provision (which is being replaced by Office of Renewable Energy Siting) authorizes the state’s Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment to oversee development of large solar facilities, bypassing much local control.

Siting Board Public Hearing is Tuesday

On Tuesday (June 1), the siting board will be conducting a public statement hearing -- a key step toward the end of the Article 10 process – via teleconference from New York City with Administrative Law Judge Gregg Sayre presiding.

Two sessions are scheduled – 1 and 6 p.m. – for community members to participate.

A determination on a permit to proceed with the project is expected by April. Developers are anticipating the solar system will be operational by the end of 2023.

Yasses said attorneys hired by the town during this process, which started more than two years ago, told board members their hands were tied.

“When a lawyer sits you down in executive session and says, ‘It’s coming whether you like it or not and there is nothing you can do about it,’ that paints a different picture in your mind,” he said. “Again, these aren’t going to be looking pretty in our town – we know that; the town board knows that. However, we had to do what is best for the people that have to look at these things.”

Yasses: We Changed Our Game Plan

Yasses said the board changed its approach from “defense to offense,” and through five months of negotiations forged a deal that it felt was justified.

“Paul (town attorney Paul Boylan) and I were charged with the negotiation and I, knowing what these things (panels) look like, did not want to sell out my town. At first they were talking nowhere near this kind of money and some of the propaganda they were dishing out – it was something like $400,000 to $500,000 a year. That’s peanuts,” he said.

“I said, ‘No way, I want a million (dollars). I won’t say who … but there were some big people in the county and town who said, ‘You’re dreaming.’ I said that’s my threshold. I want a million dollars a year for the Town of Byron. I have to live here, my people have to live here, my kids are going to live here and my grandkids are going to live here.”

Yasses said the HCB agreement was signed on April 28 at a board meeting via Zoom.

“The board was pleased,” he said, adding that he believes about a third of the annual payment can be used for property tax relief.

“Approximately a third of it will be injected into our budget,” he said. “I can’t say that the tax rate will go down but this is going to help not to raise taxes because Genesee County cut our sales tax distribution by more than that. We took some pretty drastic measures to keep ourselves in good shape, but I’m not sure the tax rate will go down.”

Residents Will Have a Voice

He said it will be up to town residents as far as how to spend the remainder of the windfall.

“Most likely, we will hire a financial advisor and we’ll probably select a committee through the citizens to help us come up with wants and needs,” he said. “It’s the community’s money and I want the community to have a say on how they spend their money.”

A closer look at the financials involved with the project reveal that the town, Genesee County and the Byron-Bergen Central School District will benefit from the PILOT negotiated between Excelsior Energy Center and the GCEDC.

Per the HCB fee schedule, the county would get $281,775 in year one and the school district would get $675,703 in year one. The town’s share would be $120,522 and, again, these payments come with a 2-percent annual escalator clause.

The GCEDC Board of Directors is expected to vote on tax incentives for Excelsior Energy Center at its meeting on June 3. Excelsior is seeking $21,498,313 in property tax abatements over the 20 years and $11,288,287 in sales tax abatements (for construction materials).

Jim Krencik, GCEDC director of marketing and communications, said Excelsior Energy would be investing $345.55 million – with $1.82 million in the first year alone to the three taxing jurisdictions based on $6,500 per megawatt.

$84.7 Million Into the Local Economy

“Excelsior’s investment over the 20-year project horizon is estimated to generate $117.5 million into the local economy when you consider the total PILOT payments, host community agreement, estimated fire district payments and related tax reductions, and construction purchases and payroll,” Krencik said.

The solar company said 290 full-time equivalent jobs will be created during the construction phase and 3.1 FTE during project operation and maintenance (solar technician, tech leader and high voltage technician).

Krencik pointed out that when subtracting the tax incentives from the direct economic impact figure, the direct benefit in excess of costs is $84.7 million over the 20 years.

And, of course, the farmers who have signed contracts with Excelsior Energy to lease their land will reap financial rewards.

Yasses said that he and others from the town will be on the siting board public hearing call on Tuesday and expects that those in opposition will be as well.

“We have heard those against it loud and clear. But, we had to do what we felt was right for the community,” he said. “This the best deal in New York State. We had some people scratching their heads wondering how we got it. It was through tough negotiations – that’s how we got it.”

Previously: GCEDC's public hearing on the Town of Byron solar project: An 'incentive' for parties to voice their opinions

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