Borrowing the title track of Bob Dylan’s 1979 album, there’s a “Slow Train Coming” to the Town of Byron in the form of a 280-megawatt, 1,600-acre, New York State-supported solar energy system that seemingly can’t be derailed.
Despite the dim prospect of preventing a significant amount of the town’s farmland from becoming a sea of solar panels, longtime Ivison Road resident Jim Lamkin said he isn’t giving up.
Lamkin has led the charge for the opposition group known as the Byron Association Against Solar by rallying community members to sign petitions, fill out surveys and, generally speaking, express their feelings to the Byron Town Board and to project developer Excelsior Energy Center, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources LLC.
“We sent out a questionnaire and 319 of them came back opposed to this,” Lamkin, 74, said. “We feel that it is important for the Town Board to hold a meeting to get a sense of what everyone wants – even if they have to take a straw vote. They haven’t done that up to now.”
The Excelsior Solar Project is one of more than 50 solar or wind proposals currently moving forward under Article 10 of the New York State Public Service Law.
Article 10 makes it tougher for municipalities to restrict solar projects larger than 25 megawatts since it gives the NYS Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment much power over construction and operation.
Lamkin said he and other BAAS members are well aware of this.
“Basically, our hands and the Town Board’s hands are tied, without any say as to where the project is located, setbacks, how much land is used or any other conditions,” Lamkin said.
VIRTUAL OPEN HOUSE IS TODAY
Byron residents on both sides of the issue can learn more about the project, which also comes with 20 megawatts of energy storage, at a Virtual Open House today. Two one-hour sessions (with the same format) are scheduled for noon and 6 p.m.
According to information from Excelsior Energy, company officials will provide an update and answer questions.
Citizens can tap in to the meeting(s) either by phone -- call 1-866-807-9684 and ask to “join the Excelsior Energy Project call” -- or to view online, click here, fill out the contact information, then click on the “Join Webcast” link.
Lamkin said he is upset over the fact that plans call for a solar array to be placed directly across the street from his home. However, he said that his concerns reach well beyond his property.
“Even if I weren’t directly affected, I would be against this,” he said. “It will change our town forever by wasting valuable farmland. Solar panels will be put adjacent to their properties and those homeowners won’t receive any tangible benefits.”
SEVERAL LANDOWNERS ARE ON BOARD
According to a map provided by Excelsior Energy Center, solar panel arrays will be spread along and near several roads, including Transit, Bank Street, Walkers Corners, Starowitz, Cockram, Batavia-Byron, Caswell, Ivison, Gillette, Tower Hill, Swamp and Bird, as well as Route 262, Route 237 and West Shore Trail.
Lamkin said that farms signing lease agreements with Excelsior Energy include Brooke-Lea, Call Lanes, Richard Colby, CY Properties, L-Brooke Farms, Lea-View Farms, Legacy Lanes, Charles Sackett and Star Growers.
Electricity generated by the system will be moved via transmission lines to Downstate locations.
When mentioned that landowners have the right to sell or lease their property, Lamkin said, “I understand that it’s their land and they do to a point.”
“But zoning laws are made to protect property owners from something not compatible with the surroundings. This Article 10 trumps over all zoning laws, and the solar company has offered the landowners so much money.”
CONFLICT OF INTEREST -- OR NOT
He said he also has issues with Town Board members who are relinquishing their land to Excelsior Energy. While no specific dollar amount has been disclosed, Lamkin believes landowners are being offered $1,000 an acre or more.
Town Councilwoman Suzanne Fuller said she was hoping to provide a 16-acre parcel on Caswell Road, but apparently it has been deemed unacceptable for the project.
“We (she said that Town Councilman Josh Kent’s family is leasing land) have obtained legal advice and it has been determined that we can vote on the project,” she said. “It is not a conflict of interest.”
Fuller said she wants to see the town benefit as well as the landowners.
“The town can really use the money,” she said. “The PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement with the county, school district and town will lower our tax rate. Otherwise, the income just isn’t here.”
Lamkin said he hopes the second and final ad-hoc member seat on the Siting Board is filled by a Byron resident. Previously, Genesee County appointed Norman Pawlak of Bergen.
“We have been waiting since January to have the other member assigned and to date there has been no action by the state or the governor,” he said. “When our case eventually goes before the Siting Board, our lack of community representation puts us at a significant disadvantage.”
CALLING OUT THE TOWN BOARD
The Town Board can do more to determine the pulse of its residents on this matter, Lamkin said.
“I cannot believe that if a significant portion of the town residents were against it, and the board got behind them, that this project could not be stopped,” he said. “Statements like the one made by (Supervisor) Pete Yasses that ‘there’s no stopping it’ and the apathy of the community will allow Excelsior to force this project into the town.
“I, along with many in the community, voted for Mr. Yasses on his promise that he would work to stop this project. He has not listened to the people but instead has been influenced by the potential windfall to the town.”
Yasses said he has been listening, holding Zoom meetings every month – “COVID-19 has really hurt us,” he noted – and making himself available for public comments.
“Other than the BAAS group (which Lamkin says has about 270 members), we haven’t heard any opposition,” Yasses said. “This is being shoved down our throat. If Jim has to be mad at anybody, he should be mad at (Governor) Andy Cuomo.”
He added that revenue to the town from the project could reduce the tax rate and provide the funds needed to build a new Town Hall and highway garage.
CERTAINLY A ‘DIVISIVE ISSUE’
Lamkin said that BAAS has been unable to make any headway with Keddy Chandran, project manager for NextEra Energy Resources.
“We try to explain our views, but with him it’s all lip service,” he said. “All you hear from him is that everything is perfect, everybody is going to be happy and this is such a wonderful thing. He’s a master of overcoming objections.”
In the end, Lamkin said the solar project will “destroy the community – removing valuable farmland, costing agriculture jobs and decreasing property values. What’s that going to do for the image of Byron?”
Matthew Lamb, co-owner of Oakfield Corners Dairy which has been operating for more than 50 years, called solar a “divisive issue,” adding that he can’t pay anywhere near what the solar company is paying for land that he rents to feed his cows and also to spread the manure.
“Prime farmland being converted to solar -- while the economics are strong for the individual who gets to do that, it creates hard feelings,” he said. “If you can find the marginal farmland, I think it is an easier argument to make.”
Genesee County Highway Superintendent Tim Hens, speaking as a private citizen, said the Article 10 proposal flies in the face of recent comprehensive planning.
“Our county was one of the first counties to have a Smart Growth Plan and it has always been a leader in protecting farms. Now about 20 percent of the Town of Byron is being turned into a ‘glass field’ and several thousand acres of prime farmlands are being taken out of service,” Hens said.
“I think once folks realize the magnitude and appearance of this project they will be shocked and upset. Pretty soon this area will just be one big battery for New York City.”
Click here for a related story -- solar farm proposal in the Town of Florida (NY).
Top photo -- Jim Lamkin stands across the street from his Ivison Road, Byron home, in front of a field designated for solar panels. Bottom photo -- Lamkin holds the map of the Excelsior Solar Project. Photos by Mike Pettinella.