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Public hearings on solar project called off indefinitely

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By DIANE VALDEN

COPAKE—The in-person and virtual public hearings that were slated to take place this week on Hecate Energy’s contentious mega solar project called Shepherd’s Run, have been postponed with no future date.

The postponement comes a week after the Town of Copake filed a motion with the state’s Office of Renewable Energy Siting (ORES) to “dismiss the Shepherd’s Run application or adjourn the [then] upcoming public comment hearing and issues procedure pending major revision to the application.”

Copake’s motion was filed in light of news that 60-acres of farmland at the corner of Cambridge Road and County Route 7 that was previously part of the Shepherd’s Run project was sold January 2 by Main Farm LLC to Craryville Farms LLC, a buyer who wants nothing to do with the solar project.

The sold parcel was supposed to host about 20% of the entire facility’s solar panels, a laydown area, and the sole access road for adjacent facility parcels, among other components, according to the town’s motion.

Filed by Benjamin E. Wisniewski, Esq., attorney for the Town of Copake in the Hecate matter, the motion states that “Shepherd’s Run Solar is infeasible because the current layout is not viable. The loss of the property requires Hecate to redesign the project in a manner that uses new, previously unidentified parcels, or redistributes project components across parcels that have already been optimized for reducing impacts. In its own application, Hecate asserts that, the current project layout represents the smallest possible project footprint that avoids, minimizes, and mitigates, to the maximum extent practicable, impacts on sensitive resources and was developed through a multi-year iterative process… In Hecate’s own words, a redesign like the one now required, ‘would prohibit the construction of the project altogether.’”

Hecate failed to disclose the expiration of the lease option for the property when it happened in September 2023, the motion states. And as recently as December 15, 2023, Hecate distributed a project map to prospective parties and administrative law judges that shows the sold property as part of the facility.

Despite the recent turn of events, Hecate Director of Development Matt Levine, told The Columbia Paper by email Wednesday: “Hecate Energy remains committed to the project and will continue working with the community and ORES to navigate the process in light of recent developments. We are steadfast in helping New York accomplish its renewable energy goals.”

The postponed public hearings were slated to take place in-person at the Copake Town Hall January 9 and 10 and virtually January 12 to receive public comment before an administrative law judge about Hecate Energy’s application to construct and operate the controversial 60-megawatt solar energy facility in Craryville, a hamlet of the Town of Copake.

Hecate Energy, a Chicago-based developer of solar and wind facilities and energy storage projects, has applied to construct the solar facility east of the Taconic Hills School District and north of Copake Lake in and around the Copake hamlet of Craryville. Nearly 200,000 solar panels were to be erected on about 228 acres of an 880-acre total project area. Much of the acreage is prime agricultural land. A school district campus and residential areas border the property.

The industrial-scale project is not permitted under Copake Zoning Law, yet it is in the midst of the application/permitting process because Hecate has bypassed local law and is seeking site approval from ORES under the state’s streamlined siting process for renewable energy projects, known as 94-c.

In his January 9 determination, ORES Executive Director Houtan Moaveni exercised his discretion over an administrative law judge’s ruling by deciding to grant the town’s motion for permission to file an expedited appeal.

On January 4, after an administrative law judge verbally denied Copake’s motion to dismiss the Shepherd’s Run application or adjourn the public comment hearing and issues procedure pending major revision to the application, the town brought an expedited appeal “on the grounds that the judge’s ruling would be unduly prejudicial to all potential parties except for the applicant, and will result in significant inefficiency in the hearing process.”

The ORES executive director agreed.

Noting that Hecate “has not addressed how it intends to proceed… or whether significant modifications to the project would be required…,” Mr. Moaveni wrote, “Given the significant uncertainty regarding the proposed facility site and footprint, and whether significant modifications to the facility would be required for the project to go forward, I conclude that to proceed with the scheduled public comment hearings and the issues determination procedure in light of the documents filed in support of the town’s motion to dismiss would be unfair to the parties and the public, and lead to significant inefficiency in the hearing process. Accordingly, in the exercise of discretion, the town’s motion for permission to file an expedited appeal is granted.”

Copake now has until the close of business, Tuesday, January 16 to serve and file its brief on appeal. Also, the town is authorized to supplement the record with any additional factual showing it deems appropriate to support its motion to dismiss the application.

All parties have until close of business, January 22, to serve and file a response to the town’s appeal. The applicant is also authorized to supplement the record with any factual showing it deems appropriate to support its opposition to the town’s motion to dismiss the application as filed and as supplemented on appeal.

In response to The Columbia Paper’s request for comment on the hearing postponement, Friends of Columbia Solar (FOCS) member Dan Haas said by email: “FOCS sees the postponement as a necessity, given the uncertainties surrounding the project. The postponement has no bearing on the question of whether Hecate must draft a new application, rather it’s a procedural decision. We are confident that the project will go forward, and continue to fully support Shepherd’s Run.”

In an emailed statement on the postponement, Sensible Solar for Rural New York member Sara Traberman wrote: “Sensible Solar supported the town’s motion to dismiss Hecate’s application or adjourn the public comment hearings (both the initial motion and the petition for an expedited appeal) once we learned that the key 60 acre parcel sold to Craryville Farms would no longer be part of Shepherd’s Run. It made no sense to hold hearings to talk about a project that was no longer valid or viable. We agree with the executive director’s sensible decision to postpone the public comment hearings and grant the expedited appeal. We are where we are now with this process because the lease on the 60 acre parcel expired, Hecate could not get a renewal from the landowner, and Hecate failed to disclose any of this information to anyone. The executive director’s decision insures the public will not be unfairly inconvenienced because of Hecate’s incompetence and mismanagement.”

Copake Supervisor Richard Wolf told The Columbia Paper by phone Wednesday, that he was gratified that the ORES executive director granted Copake’s request to adjourn the public hearings. He said that the executive director agreed that as a result of the recent sale of a 60-acre parcel that was to have been an important part of the project footprint, that Shepherd’s Run was fundamentally changed.

Mr. Wolf said the executive director noted that to proceed with the hearings as scheduled would be “unfair to the parties and the public, and lead to significant inefficiency in the hearing process.”

The Copake supervisor said, “Had the hearings proceeded, even though no one knows what a revised project might look like, elected state officials, town supervisors from around the county and members of the public would have had to speculate on how the unknown project might impact farmland, water, wetlands and forests.”

ORES Executive Director Moaveni adjourned the public comment hearings and issues determination procedure and extended the deadline for filing written public comments pending a decision on Copake’s appeal.

To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@columbiapaper.com

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