Board reviews energy siting proposal

A solar array is seen from Outer Stowe Street in Lowville. Watertown Daily Times

CANTON — The window for public comments on the state’s new draft siting process regulations for large scale renewable energy projects closes Monday, and the St. Lawrence County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board voted to submit a long list of recommended changes.

The five-page list of recommendations was crafted by county planning department staff, and approved unanimously by the county Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board on Thursday. They include a wide array of concerns ranging from the definition of inactive agriculture land to access to records.

The new siting process would be contained under a new department, the Office of Renewable Energy Siting. This takes the place of the Article 10 siting process, which was mostly housed under the Department of Public Service. The idea is to expedite the process for approving extremely large wind and solar projects that produce more than 25 kilowatts. Currently, it can take three to four years to approve a project under Article 10, but the new draft regulations are supposed to accomplish that in less than 10 years.

One of the chief concerns of the Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board is the protection of agriculture and farmland, both active and potential. The draft regulations set requirements for sites proposed on active ag land. Those regulations define active ag land as being used three of the last five years, but the board recommended scrapping the qualifier of “active” entirely, believing any suitable ag land should be protected.

“We want to see that all agricultural lands are preserved, not just active lands,” County Planning Director Jason C. Pfotenhauer said. “It may be inactive now, but it has great potential to be active in the future. It may have great soil characteristics and just not be active now.”

Many of the changes recommended by the Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board addressed concerns about the process for carrying out approval and issues of transparency and consultation within it. On several points, the board recommended language should be included that ensures the highest ranking elected officials in the municipality and county are also notified of any proposed plans and that the clock doesn’t start ticking on the approval process until they’ve been informed. The board also recommended language be stricken that gives the administrative law judge, an individual designated by the director of the Office of Renewable Energy Siting to oversee the application process, discretion whether to make transcripts of hearings public.

Another recommendation asks that public comment at those public hearings be considered evidence in the process, which could allow parties to further investigate or raise questions based on that input alone.

Other input by the Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board had more to do with concerns over local control and involvement in the approval process and preparedness for working with large wind or solar installations in the community.

The planning office pointed out vague and undefined wording in a regulation that could theoretically allow the approval of a project over local laws if they were found to be “unreasonably burdensome.”

“What does that mean?” Mr. Pfotenhauer asked. “There’s no real guidance that we found in the document that explains what unreasonably burdensome means. So staff is just suggesting that regulations define and explain what constitutes ‘unreasonable’ and outline the process for that determination.”

They brought up other issues of local concern, as well. One of those was with the decommissioning process for tearing down a project years down the road. While the state regulations do include requirements on developers to put a plan in place and set funds aside for decommissioning, the Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board wanted to ensure those developers don’t try to factor in salvage value of the equipment into that calculation.

“We said they should not do that because local governments don’t have the time and or resources to go chase that down and be responsible for getting the salvage value,” Mr. Pfotenhauer said.

Another chief concern is the impact of heavy equipment on local roads and highways during the construction process. Since many potential sites are off main arteries, there’s often potential for damage to the road. The planning office is recommending the developer assess the potential damage and lay out funds to remedy any that occurs.

The Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board also recommends developers be required to front funds for training and equipment for first responders who may have to respond to fires or other potential disasters at the facilities.

“Some of the local responders in our area may not have the training and or equipment in order to adequately respond and so that burden would be placed on the developer to make sure that they can cover those types of expenses,” Matilda Larson, a county planner, told the board.

The public is able to submit comments on the new regulations on the Office of Renewable Energy Siting website until Dec. 7.

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