As May floods into the Hudson Valley and winter’s levee breaks, its cold, barren seams burst giving way to an overflow of boundless greens and fertile earth. As it is each year, residents of rural upstate New York begin to fantasize of warmer temps, the scent of a freshly mowed lawn, lazy days and neighborly chats. Spring in the Hudson River Valley, as it does in most places around the nation, brings with it a sense of rebirth. For the better part of a decade, the idea of rebirth has been intrinsically tied to the land itself in New York State – specifically when it comes to the energy we draw from it.
In June of 2011, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo allocated $191 million to 17 power projects across the state courtesy of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and the Public Service Commission (PSC) for the purpose of producing and delivering renewable electricity to New Yorkers. What was touted as the nation’s most aggressive renewable energy plan at the time took a further step when, four years later, Governor Cuomo announced the approval of a bold new community initiative enabling millions of New Yorkers to access clean and affordable energy for the first time. Proposed in Governor Cuomo’s 2015 State of Opportunity Agenda, the prospect of what was dubbed “Shared Renewables” was established to provide opportunities for renters, homeowners, low-income residents, schools, and businesses to join together to set up shared renewable energy projects resulting in healthier and stronger communities. The entire initiative was, in a word, ambitious.
The wholesale resistance against the production and use of fossil fuels in New York became the Governor’s foundational platform over the course of the prevailing decade. There is little doubt among communities across the area that in the Hudson Valley and areas south, climate change has led to rising temperatures, shifting weather patterns, more frequent high-intensity storms, and a rise in sea levels. As part of the State’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, New York mandates that 70 percent of electricity must come from renewable sources by 2030 and 100% from carbon-free sources by 2040, including 6,000 megawatts of solar by 2025 and a total of 21 large-scale solar, wind, and energy storage projects to be built across upstate New York, totaling 1,278 megawatts of new renewable capacity. Still, as the state pushes forward toward a greener future, many small towns throughout the Hudson Valley, particularly those whose economies are sustained by agriculture and tourism, feel uncertain and overburdened by the state’s aggressive policies.
Solar in our backyard
During the latter half of the last decade, the push for solar energy has hit close to home. In the small town of Copake, NY, and the adjacent hamlet of Craryville – part of the Copake township – in Columbia County, solar developers have their eye on an industrious new plan. The project, originally nicknamed Shepherd’s Run, is an aggressive plan to construct a 360-acre, 60-megawatt solar facility near New York State Route 23, Route 7, and Route 11A in Craryville. The project itself (roughly the size of 378 football fields) is to be built in Craryville, the town of Copake, and abutting Hillsdale, Copake Lake, and Taconic Hills Central School.
In 2017, sensing the intimidating scale of the project and its potential impact upon the surrounding community, Copake revised the town’s zoning code to explicitly prohibit solar energy systems greater than ten acres in the Town of Copake, Copake Lake, and the hamlets of Craryville and Copake Falls. The 2017 zoning law stated that any utility-scale solar energy system may occupy up to 20% of the area of the parcel on which it is located; provided, however, that the area of land used for any such system shall not exceed ten acres. Combined with its 2014 Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan, officials of Copake had hoped to assuage any concerns residents had about a large-scale solar project sprawling through their rural viewsheds. However, the state’s unbending goals for massive renewable energy generation was not to be deterred.
The Power New York Act (also known as Article 10 to locals embroiled in debate) was originally signed into New York State law in 2003 and revised in 2011. The revision placed the authority in the control of a siting board, which consists of five members from state government agencies and two ad-hoc members from the locality in which a facility is being proposed. The new reliance upon a siting board, whose majority relied upon state officials, helped cast an air of skepticism among residents and officials within the small town. Thus, a heated debate has begun to crop up across the agrestic towns and communities dotting the nation’s fourth largest state. Recently, the state has upped the ante as the project’s developer, Hecate Energy, announced in late April that it would transfer its application to build the 60-megawatt industrial solar power plant in Copake from “Article 10” to a new process called “94-c”. 94-c, “directs the Office of Renewable Energy Siting (ORES or the Office) to accept pending Public Service Law (PSL) Article 10 applications which opt to transfer into the Executive Law Section 94-c process,” according to Nathan Stone, public information officer at ORES. For Copake officials, this switch might further clear a path for the clandestine project by replacing the former siting board under Article 10 with a single acting director from the Office of Renewable Energy Siting.
Though the existential threat of climate change remains ever-present, local leaders and residents from every creed and economic background who call the Hudson Valley home have begun to ask questions. What is the cost of solar energy? Will the state ignore reasonable opposition? And perhaps most importantly, is this all genuine?
“We are very proud to be part of New York’s push for renewable energy,” is the prevailing sentiment among representatives from Illinois-based developer Hecate Energy. Indeed, the developer behind the Shepherd’s Run plan remains at the crux of the battle between local and state officials. At the heart of the entire operation, and perhaps the four-year long debate itself, is an aspect of Hecate’s plan that harkens back to the old real estate mantra: location, location, location. Both Craryville and Copake have an electrical transfer station that has the available capacity for solar energy to be processed. The existence of the substation means Hecate will not have to build or expand transfer stations that exist in remote, non-residential, rural locations. Despite this, and the fact that the 900-acre parcel of land that Hecate needs to purchase is owned by only four landowners, making their path toward development a bit easier, Hecate remains resolute in its stance that greener energy is the ultimate priority.
“Despite local sentiment, we (at Hecate) have taken measures to alleviate the size of the Sheperd’s Run project a number of times,” said a representative from Hecate. “From our standpoint, this is about the long-term health of the state. Many of the arguments against the project stem from the notion that the area’s character will be negatively impacted, but what will that character be like if climate change continues?”
Hecate’s overview of the project boasts several potential benefits of large-scale solar development including delivering significant revenues to local government, schools, and community services, as well as boosting the area’s economy, creating construction jobs and adding commerce for local businesses. Still, concerns have arisen over the potential impact of property values should large solar panels dot the landscape. “We have reviewed a number of third party publications that opine on property law,” said the representative. “We have not deemed any impact on property values when it comes to the installation of utility solar.”
As far as the state’s use of Article 10 and the recent introduction of 94-c, Hecate again seeks to placate any misconceptions. “Both of these pieces of legislation take local laws into consideration extensively,” said the representative. “To the extent that those laws are fair or burdensome, the siting board takes that into consideration as well.” Hecate insists they have had no contact with state officials or the Governor’s office, a notion that seems to prevail among locals. Hecate instead maintains that they entered New York through the select landowners who, in fact, reached out to them. “There are many misconceptions floating around,” the representative says. “There’s a misnomer that the crops on the farmland in question are distributed to local stores and farmers markets that feed the community. This is simply not true, the crops grown are for personal use and employ artificial fertilizers, meaning the land itself isn’t quite as fertile as may be believed.”
In the end, Hecate says it will rely on its well-renowned reputation as a developer to satisfy Copake’s residents, as well as carry the torch for New York’s energy revolution. “The bottom line is that the project, as it is currently envisioned, is much smaller than what was presented in December of last year,” the representative said. “This will be a world-class solar installation and a beacon for the entire state. We are doing everything we can to work with the community to reach that goal.”
Copake fights back
“We want cleaner energy, we just want it done right,” one local resident affirmed as he stood looking out over the adjacent land from his backyard, land that might soon feature the unmistakable footprint of solar panels. Since December of 2020, when Hecate first presented a plan for its solar layout, residents have been nervously pacing social media and their backyards, awaiting the next bit of news that might impact their daily lives. Unfortunately for those residents in opposition of Sheperd’s Run, April’s news did little to quell their nervous resentment.
“Hecate’s announcement that it is switching to 94-c is more bad news for Copake,” said Copake Supervisor Jeanne E. Mettler. “As the Town Board said in a unanimous Resolution in October 2020, Article 10 trampled on Home Rule. Now Hecate has jumped from Article 10, which had little regard for local zoning, to 94-c which is geared to totally ignore local laws in favor of a quick state rubber stamping for solar projects.”
For, state representatives at NYSERDA, the ultimate goal remains clear, to power New York thoroughly and efficiently, “New York’s robust pipeline of large-scale renewable energy, comprised of nearly 100 solar, land-based wind and offshore wind projects, will add nearly 11,000 megawatts of clean power to the grid when completed – enough to power over five million New York homes,” says one representative. “The state’s commitment to building out new green energy transmission, led by 250 miles of new major upgrades already underway throughout the state, with other future green transmission projects planned, will allow the current pipeline of renewables to power over 50 percent of New York’s electricity from renewable sources once operational.”
In Copake, Town Supervisor Jeanne Mettler and Deputy Supervisor Richard Wolf, the man who has been the town’s point person on the Hecate application, feel the state’s relentless obstinance runs counter to its admirable goals. “The Town Board recognizes climate change as an existential threat and applauds the state’s commitment to addressing that threat,” said Deputy Supervisor Wolf. “But Copake is only one of 932 towns in this state. The governor’s goal of achieving 70% of renewable energy could be reached if each town supplied 6.5 megawatts of renewable energy. It is wrong to force Copake to shoulder ten times its fair share.”
Especially troubling for local officials is the fact that in the 2021 budget, New York State exempted 94-c from SEQRA, the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act, which according to the state DEC website “requires all state and local government agencies to consider environmental impacts equally with social and economic factors during discretionary decision-making. This means these agencies must assess the environmental significance of all actions they have discretion to approve, fund or directly undertake.”
Despite the lack of presence from the state’s siting board as well as any communication with the Governor’s office, Copake’s dynamic duo has found fervent support from state politicians. Among those advocates is Senator Daphne Jordan, who has represented the 43rd district since her election in 2018. Senator Jordan says, “Part (10) of the Revenue Bill from the recently enacted 2021-22 State Budget establishes a standardized approach for real property tax assessment for solar and wind infrastructure. Ultimately, this provision will remove local control and diminish the voice of local elected leaders. Having served in local government before entering the State Senate, I understand, appreciate, and respect the vital principle of Home Rule.”
In New York, Home Rule powers remain among the most far-reaching in the nation and grant local municipal governments the power to regulate the quality of life in communities and to provide direct services to the people. “Local problems need local solutions,” says Senator Jordan. “Home Rule helps ensure that the voices and concerns of local communities are heard.”
According to one local resident who purchased her home in Craryville along with her husband and two children in May of 2020, home might not feel quite so familiar should the project move forward as is. “We worked really hard to own our home in the community where we grew up, but at some point when we retire, we will want to sell our home,” she says. “How will this eye sore affect the sale of our home? Not to mention the effects that it will have on the land and wildlife. It’s my understanding that when the contract is done, the solar panels are not removed. They continue to sit there. Go ahead and Google ‘abandoned solar’ panels. It’s a very upsetting sight!”
For Deputy Supervisor Wolf, the sense of burden local homeowners feel is very real and is in contrast with Hecate’s stance on property values. “In 2020, the State passed the ORES law which truncates community involvement,” he says. “Developers receive Renewable Energy Credits from NYSERDA, which are worth $43 million over the life of an agreement. Contrary to what Hecate might say, home values will plummet because an industrial complex will abutt these properties. Objective studies show this. Unfortunately, it will be the middle class who suffer, many homeowners who have lived here all their lives will feel somewhat disenfranchised when someone shows up and says ‘your home is now worth a fraction of what it had previously been worth.’ We are working with Hecate to see if these viewsheds can be less impacted, but there is no question those properties will be devalued and where those Renewable Energy Credits go or how they are allocated, we simply do not know.”
Mr. Wolf may not be alone in this sentiment as evidenced by a study published in The Providence Journal in Rhode Island in September of 2020. “After analyzing thousands of property sales in Rhode Island and Massachusetts over a decade and a half,” the article written by Alex Kuffner states. “Economists at the University of Rhode Island have concluded that solar development is having a negative impact on nearby home values.” According to the article, “Some of the largest impacts were in suburban communities when a solar project was built on a farm or forested property. In those instances, housing prices within a mile of the array dropped
Mostly though, it is the effect the project will have on the integrity of the land and the community that has seemingly taken precedent for local officials. “Every piece of property will be impacted. Everyone else within the community of Columbia County will be affected,” says Supervisor Mettler. “We feel the state has chosen corporate interests over community. Each local municipality should have control over their own zoning and this new provision blatantly disregards that.”
Conservation and compromise
Despite the contentious nature of the debate, and as is true for many communities across the Hudson Valley, there is always room for compromise. One of the more enduring principles that lay within the character of rural New Yorkers is the ability to converse and advocate accordingly. Perhaps the most prominent advocacy group at the forefront of the debate is Sensible Solar. As an organization composed specifically to address the impact of the Sheperd’s Run project, Sensible Solar is a self-described coalition of concerned citizens in rural Columbia County, who, while in strong opposition to the Shepherd’s Run Solar Project, feel compromise can be had should the community be more involved.
“We really don’t have all of the facts to be able to properly evaluate the proposal and that is what is most frustrating,” laments Sensible Solar member Darin Johnson. “In many ways, solar in New York has become something similar to the wild west. Developers hire brokers and flash money in front of farmers and landowners without considering the wishes of the community at large.” It was Sensible Solar’s pursuit of awareness within the community and social media that led to a Town Hall Zoom meeting of nearly 400 people in March as well as the attention of state representatives like Senator Jordan. “Sensible Solar has done an excellent job in getting the word out regarding Copake,” says Jordan. “They have been highly effective in sharing information and raising public awareness. I have been supportive of their efforts, and the town’s efforts, based on local control, which is a fundamental principle for accountable and responsive government. I hope that Hecate can work with the town to come up with a better plan that is acceptable and addresses local concerns. We have not done anything state-wide yet in terms of raising awareness, though I think that may be the next step.”
For their part, other local environmental organizations have offered their perspectives as well including the Columbia Land Conservancy (CLC) and the historic environmental watchdog organization Scenic Hudson. In an effort to raise concerns over the project’s potential environmental impact, the CLC stated, “a project at the scale of the Hecate proposal has the potential for numerous significant adverse impacts on ecological, natural, and scenic resources.”
Scenic Hudson, whose pursuit for renewable energy within the Hudson Valley is well documented, understands resident concern and has taken up the mantle of compromise. “New York State leads the nation in renewable energy goals and the Hudson Valley is not exempt from the solar build-out,” says Hayley Carlock, director of environmental advocacy and legal affairs for Scenic Hudson. “In small towns like (Copake), this presents a challenge for Scenic Hudson. While we understand resident concern, climate change presents an existential threat to the sustainability of our area. The urgent need for statewide renewable energy means some of these larger scale projects will require open space – we need to find a solution that includes community interests as well.”
While compromise presents itself on the horizon, for local officials, communication is the key to bridging the current divide. “We support solar,” says Mr. Johnson. “If Hecate comes to the table with a willingness to work with the town in conjunction with its residents, we will support that but thus far, communication only seems acceptable to a certain point.” According to representatives from ORES however, the new law is designed to take potentially harmful impacts into consideration, “The Office recognizes the importance of conserving rural lands and ecosystems in New York State,” Mr. Stone relayed in a statement. “(ORES) has adopted a comprehensive set of regulations in conformance with Executive Law 94-c requiring a thorough assessment of the potential impacts of proposed major renewable energy facilities on these resources.”
Copake’s leaders however, remain skeptical, “Instead of pausing and figuring out solutions, they have simply said ‘here are our goals and we need to get here.’ The result is the trampling of small towns like ours,” says Supervisor Mettler. Deputy Supervisor Wolf reiterates, “We have an economy that is based in agriculture and tourism. The Harlem Valley Rail Trail brings in a significant amount of tourism dollars to this area. People are astonished by the beauty everywhere here, all of that is at risk now. We have no industrial zoning here because of our history in agriculture and outdoor tourism. There is no regard for that fact. There is no plan and no policy in place that takes that into consideration. We are not rigid; we want to hear a plan that is open to our residents. We are open to compromise. Any other notion is false. Nobody is reaching out to us.”
“We all live here, we all want what is best for the future of our region,” one resident says. “Community input is the heart of our way of life and the construction of such a project without community involvement is in direct opposition to the civic-minded nature of our small towns and villages.”
Perhaps the tragic irony of the entire debate is that it has divided folks over an issue in which a majority are in agreement. Renewable energy resources like solar are critical weapons in the battle against climate change. However, if those same virtuous ideals are themselves weaponized to the detriment of community relationships in rural New York, the future of green energy may be cast further into the chasm of doubt. •
For more information on Sensible Solar and their efforts to raise awareness, visit sensiblesolarny.org. To learn more about Hecate Energy, visit hecateenergy.com. Find out what Scenic Hudson is doing to sustain the Hudson Valley at scenichudson.org. For more information about the Columbia Land Conservancy, visit clctrust.org. Source for the Providence Journal article www.providencejournal.com/story/news/environment/2020/09/30/study-solar-projects-driving-down-home-values-in-ri-suburbs/114167186/