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Copake mounts response to solar project


COPAKE—The first step in the Town of Copake’s strategy to stand up to Hecate Energy and its proposed industrial-sized 60-megawatt solar facility in Craryville is already in the works.

The initial move involves changes to Copake’s Zoning Code regarding solar energy installations “to make sure the law is reasonable” and “strikes a balance between town and state energy policy.”

Under current Copake Zoning Law, the Hecate project is 50 times the size of a permissible utility scale facility.

The idea to make the code changes came from Attorney Benjamin Wisniewski, retained by the town to represent its interests throughout Hecate’s application and review process under terms of what is called a state Article 10 proceeding. The company is seeking approval for its “Shepherd’s Run” facility from the state Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment instead of the town Planning and Zoning Boards.

About 150 people tuned in July 30 to a special Copake Town Board meeting on Hecate Energy’s proposal to install 200,000 solar panels on 500 acres within a 900-acre project area. Most of that land is now used for farming.

A representative of Hecate was signed in on the session but did not comment.

The facility will be located near the County Route 7/State Route 23 intersection, primarily south of Route 23, although specifically where the solar panels will be placed has not yet been revealed.

Held via a Zoom online video conference, the main attraction was Attorney Wisniewski, a partner at the Zoghlin Group, a Rochester law firm. He works in the firm’s energy, land use, municipal and environmental practice groups. During the meeting he described the “very long, very complicated” Article 10 process Hecate is currently undertaking.

He said that a revision to the town’s 2017 solar energy law could “better advance the town’s planning goals and objectives and … advance various state and local farmland protection policies.”

‘It may be appropriate to strengthen Copake’s law to ensure local planning objectives are honored.’

Attorney Benjamin Wisniewski

Counsel for Copake in Hecate solar plan

In his PowerPoint presentation, Mr. Wisniewski said that since the town’s law was enacted, “the state’s energy policy has changed and the likelihood of large projects being proposed for Copake has increased. Current state policy calls for 70% renewable energy by 2030. This year’s state budget created new agencies and programs to further expedite solar energy siting and that state energy policy now promotes broad expansion of large battery storage units.”

Because of these changes he said “it may be appropriate to strengthen Copake’s law to ensure local planning objectives are honored, community character is preserved and farmland protection policies are complied with.”

Referring to current relevant state laws, the attorney cited the state constitution, which says the state’s policy is to “conserve and protect its natural resources and scenic beauty and encourage the development and improvement of its agricultural lands for the production of food and other agricultural products.”

You can’t have any stronger of a statement in support of preserving agricultural lands than that,” he said.

Language about the importance of New York’s farmland also shows up in State Agriculture and Markets Law, which declares it is the state’s policy “to conserve and protect agricultural lands as valued natural and ecological resources which provide needed open spaces for clean airsheds as well as for aesthetic purposes.” The law also calls agricultural land “a viable segment of the local and state economies as an economic resource of major importance.”

In another example, Mr. Wisniewski referenced testimony that the State Department of Ag and Markets filed in a different Article 10 case which stated, “the department has a comprehensive appreciation for the value of the state’s finite agricultural soil resources as it pertains to our agricultural economy and food production. The department strives to minimize the permanent conversion of productive agricultural lands.”

Ag and Markets considers solar facility build-outs as a permanent conversion, said the attorney. The testimony goes on to say, “the production of food cannot be compromised, as food is more essential than electricity.”

The attorney cited examples of town policy that contains similar pro-agriculture language such as the town’s 2011 Comprehensive Plan and the 2014 Farmland Protection Plan (FPP).

He pointed out that based on the FPP’s soil quality map, some of the most high-quality farmland in town is situated within the proposed solar facility project area.

Mr. Wisniewski noted that the town’s local law will play an important part in assuring that development in the town, even state-controlled development, will remain consistent with the town’s goals and objectives for farmland preservation and rural character.

He proposed changes to the town’s zoning code to recognize and focus on protection of the town’s “important, exceptional or unique local features,” such as the growing bicycle tourism industry; the Rheinstrom Hill Audubon Center and Sanctuary in Craryville and other ecological resources; abundance of prime farmland and associated rural character; Copake Lake, Bash Bish Creek and Taconic State Park.

The law changes will “require consideration of impacts on these features and advance new substantive standards to protect them.”

The 17-page proposed revised solar law was introduced by Town Attorney Ken Dow at the Copake Town Board’s August 8 meeting.

A public hearing on the revised law will take place prior to the board’s September 10 meeting. The public will have an opportunity to ask questions and comment on the law at that time. The board may or may not act on the revised law during that meeting or in October.

In his solar project update at the August 8 meeting, Copake Deputy Town Supervisor Richard Wolf, the Town Board’s point man on the project, said Hecate Energy Columbia County formally filed its Preliminary Scoping Statement (PSS) with the Siting Board, August 5. The document is 238 pages, plus maps and a copy of the revised Public Involvement Program plan. “To the untrained eye, it doesn’t seem to reveal much of anything, despite its length. But trained eyes are reviewing it for us,” he said.

To contact Diane Valden email

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