St. Lawrence planners reject Canton solar project

A separate solar project in the village of Canton that was approved and began generating power in 2019. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

CANTON — The St. Lawrence County Planning Board voted, for the first time, Thursday to deny a large-scale solar project.

The project in question would involve building a 34-acre, 5-megawatt, solar array off of Meade Road in the town of Canton on the property of Brian Brewer. Chazen Company is the lead engineer who designed the project.

The Planning Board found several major concerns including the destruction of wetlands, deforestation and development on top of prime agricultural land. In addition, the project would rely on constructing an access road into the array and setting up transmission lines outside of a designated easement, which drew concerns from neighbors Pam and Jim Rose whose home and business would be virtually surrounded by the array and transmission lines.

“We’re out in the wilderness basically. We put our business outside of town and our house outside of town for the reasons anybody does,” Mrs. Rose told the board. “Then to literally think about being wrapped around with poles, people digging across our lawn, traveling across our lawn, then to sit out in our dining room and living room looking at solar panels is just really disturbing in a lot of aspects.”

The Roses also said the developer didn’t contact or consult them on the project at any point, which seemed to irk some of the board members. While the board could recommend that a stipulation be put in that the solar developer add foliage to block the view of the array and some other measures, the concerns of neighbors alone aren’t grounds for the planning committee to deny a project. Still, there were other legitimate issues on the site itself.

“I don’t think there’s any rule that they have to. I mean there’s no way we, as this body, can require them to do that I don’t think,” board member Kitty O’Neill said.

“I agree with that,” another member, Kenneth Bellor, responded. “But when you’re putting together a project like this and it impacts a property owner and there are so many issues that I see. I think just out of courtesy it would be good in my opinion that the adjacent owners are contacted at least. Even if they didn’t there are so many issues with this easement and just the layout that I don’t see where really the developer really did good due diligence on this.”

Federally delineated wetlands are protected, meaning the developer would have to seek permission and jump through a number of hoops with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. County planning staff indicated they had no evidence that had been done yet.

The 34-acre project would also involve cutting down several acres of trees. Generally, the board prefers avoiding doing so to construct solar arrays due mostly to the questionable irony latent in that environmental logic. In addition, the county has identified a large part of the parcel as prime agricultural land, feeding into an ongoing debate over whether such land, which is in relatively short supply in St. Lawrence County, should be developed and closed to farming for decades.

While the use of ag land, deforestation, and, to a lesser degree, construction over wetlands, have been present in other projects that were ultimately approved with stipulations, many of the board members found the combination and scale in which those practices were in-play on the Meade Road project to cross the line.

“I think there’s a lot of deal breakers on this project,” said Eric Alan, a board member with a penchant for voting against projects for ag land usage. “You know, I’m the guy who usually votes ‘no’, but this project has a lot of red flags that a lot of other projects do not.”

The county board voted 11-1 with no abstentions to deny the project as proposed.

That denial isn’t necessarily binding though. The ultimate decision falls to the Town of Canton Planning Board, which may decide to approve the project but would need to have a majority plus one vote to do so.

During Thursday’s meeting, the county board also approved three other solar projects. Two of those were by private developers on County Route 6 in Oswegatchie. The third was a project by the Village of Heuvelton to construct an array on the site previously used to dump solid waste on Taylor Road in Oswegatchie.

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