New York’s three most powerful elected representatives have failed to act on recommendations from Livingston County and the towns of Caledonia and Mount Morris that would have given local stakeholders a say in whether large-scale solar array proposals progress in the two towns.
The inaction has left oversight of two massive arrays solely to five state agency heads, all of whom were appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
In New York, oversight of new energy production facilities, like the Horseshoe solar project in Caledonia and Rush and the Morris Ridge array in Mount Morris, falls to a siting board. The board is responsible for reviewing applications from development companies and deciding if, and when, a project is ready to move forward.
The siting board has five permanent members from different state agencies and two ad hoc members, which vary from project to project. State law requires the two ad hoc members to be residents of the municipality in which an energy production facility will be located.
The reasoning behind this process, said Assemblywoman Marjorie Byrnes, R-Caledonia, is to ensure local stakeholders have input on a project that has the potential to have long-lasting impacts on the surrounding area.
It’s important that “the issues that are raised in our communities are known by Albany and can be addressed by Albany,” said Byrnes, whose 133rd Assembly District includes all of Livingston County and the town of Rush in Monroe County. “I’m just a strong proponent that we really, truly need to have people who are familiar with the community, part of the decision-making process.”
For the Horseshoe solar project in Caledonia, the task of recommending ad hoc members fell, by law, to Town Supervisor Dan Pangrazio and County Administrator Ian Coyle.
Pangrazio and Coyle nominated the same four individuals as potential ad hoc members — Pat Rountree, Paul Raymond, Keith Stein and Dick Thomas — and notified Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in letters dated March 14 and 22, respectively.
In his letter, Pangrazio said any of the four nominees “would contribute greatly” to the siting board.
“The candidates that we recommend to you are honest, dependable and incredibly hard-working individuals,” Pangrazio wrote. “Along with varying talents, they all would be great team members. I confidently recommend each of these individuals.”
Because a portion of the proposed Horseshoe solar array is in the town of Rush in Monroe County, Cathleen Frank, at the time the Rush Town Supervisor, and Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo were also responsible for submitting four ad hoc member nominations apiece for Stewart-Cousins’ and Heastie’s consideration.
Frank submitted her four nominees — Richard Anderson, Amber Corbin, Robin Rapport and Hans Schmitthenner — to Heastie and Stewart-Cousins in a letter dated March 26. Dinolfo’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday about who she’d nominated and when.
Under state law, Stewart-Cousins and Heastie then had 30 days after receiving the list of nominees to pick an ad hoc member apiece to serve on the siting board.
Because neither took any action within 30 days however, the decision then passed to Cuomo, who had 45 days to appoint the two ad hoc members from the list of nominations submitted by Pangrazio, Coyle, Frank and, potentially, Dinolfo. But Cuomo never took any action either.
It’s a similar story in Mount Morris. As in Caledonia with the Horseshoe solar project, the county and town of Mount Morris had identical ad hoc nominees — Jack Mongillo and Robert Skinner, according to Coyle. Coyle said he submitted the two men as nominees to Stewart-Cousins and Heastie via a letter dated April 12.
According to James Denn, public affairs director for the state’s Department of Public Service, which encompasses the siting board, no ad hoc members had been appointed for either the Morris Ridge or Horseshoe solar projects as of Aug. 20.
The result of Stewart-Cousins’, Heastie’s and Cuomo’s inaction on ad hoc members is a lack of local input on the more than 1,000-acre solar arrays, which Byrnes said “will obviously have a major effect on our communities.”
“Some of these projects may be very good for our communities, but we really need local representation on these boards so that the appropriate decisions and projects are done in the right areas,” Byrnes said. “That’s an exceedingly huge concern to me, as it should be for any citizen.”
Pat Rountree was one of the four people nominated by the county and town to serve on the Horseshoe solar array siting board.
After being approached about whether he’d be willing to serve on the siting board for the project, Rountree, who served as Livingston County’s economic development director for more than 20 years, looked through minutes of meeting of siting boards for other projects across the state. What he found wasn’t exactly encouraging.
Rountree said he noticed the siting board’s permanent members didn’t accept any input from the local representatives on the board.
“They just ended up doing what they wanted,” he said. “Their concerns were never addressed.”
Rountree called the inclusion of local representatives on siting boards for other projects “window-dressing” done in an attempt to make it appear as though the state was listening and receptive to the concerns of local residents.
Speaking Tuesday, Rountree said he thinks local representatives would bring an important perspective on the Horseshoe and Morris Ridge solar proposals.
“Absolutely, as long as you take open-minded people,” he said.
Coyle, the Livingston County administrator, said it is the county’s sincere belief that it “did everything correctly on our end in terms of submitting names” for potential ad hoc members.
“From our reading of the statute, this possibly allows the state to proceed with a (siting) board bereft of local representatives, flouting the intent and spirit of this portion of the law,” Coyle said.
Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, whose 59th State Senate district includes Caledonia, said he was “disappointed” with Stewart-Cousins’, Heastie’s and Cuomo’s inaction.
“The lack of regional representation on such oversight boards is concerning and I am calling on the governor to immediately appoint ad hoc members as required by law,” Gallivan said in a statement.
Cuomo addressed the issue of local representation on siting boards during an appearance Tuesday in Wilson, Niagara County.
According to the Lockport Journal, Cuomo promised that “no large-scale energy projects would move forward in Niagara County or other parts of the state without host communities having representation on the state siting board charged with approving or denying them.”
“I think the Article 10 process has worked well for many, many years. This is not a new situation, nor is it new that there is opposition to any big project. If it’s a housing project, if it’s a new factory, if it’s wind, if it’s solar; whatever it is, there’s always a certain level of opposition for one reason or another,” said Cuomo, according to a transcript provided by his press office. “What the law does say is the local community must be at the table and their voices must be heard, and their objections must be heard and addressed. That is also in the law and my understanding is the local community feels that they have been shut out of the process, and that is not right, and that is not legal, and if that is the case the state will intervene.”
Cuomo’s press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday about why the governor had failed to appoint ad hoc members to the Horseshoe and Morris Ridge solar projects once the decision fell to him.
State Sen. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, sponsored a bill in the Senate during the 2019 legislative session that would have required ad hoc members to be appointed to a siting board before the board had the authority to meet and take action.
Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls, introduced an identical law in the Assembly with Byrnes as a co-sponsor. Both bills failed to progress beyond preliminary committees in both chambers, however.
The office of Stewart-Cousins and Heastie did not respond to requests for comment.