Council urged to scrutinize solar farms

Lawmakers eye six-month moratorium to shine light on procedures, rules needed for such projects

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The city needs to develop a better policy when it comes to solar power developments, according to a member of Rome’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

During the public comment portion of Wednesday’s Common Council meeting, local businessman and ZBA member James DiCastro urged councilors to draft specific requirements for solar power companies wishing to construct developments — known as “solar farms” — within the city.

Earlier this month, the ZBA voted unanimously against granting a special area variance to Turin Road Solar, LLC — whose parent company is Seaboard Solar— so that it could construct a proposed 31-acre solar array in a wooded area off of Ironwood Drive and adjacent to a residential neighborhood.

Rome Attorney J. Kevin O’Shea, 6384 Ironwood Drive, as well as several members from the community, argued against the solar array, citing concerns for flooding, lower property values, disruption to wildlife and noise pollution, among others.

DiCastro noted that 40 years ago, “some people came to Rome and said the fort (Fort Stanwix National Monument) would be an asset to the city, and an economic asset, and it probably was, but that said, the city had to construct two parking garages for the fort and merchants. Forty years later,” one “parking garage wasn’t used and needed to be taken down. If it not for a grant, we wouldn’t be able to do it.”

DiCastro said a couple months ago, business men, engineers and biologists came to Rome and wanted a solar farm to go up in Councilor Frank R. Anderson’s fifth ward. As for the planning and zoning board meetings where Turin Road Solar, LLC representatives gave presentations about the project, “council members didn’t come, or you would’ve seen what went on,” DiCastro said.

“This project wasn’t for the residents. It was a nice, quiet neighborhood and Mr. O’Shea came up with a study by a college that showed that a solar array actually affects the value of houses. So people had to go through the hardship of potentially selling their house with the wetlands being disturbed and water potentially running down properties,” DiCastro said, adding, “But Mr. O’Shea sent their people packing — they didn’t know what they were in for.”

DiCastro further explained that the first thing that concerned him was the “LLC” in Turin Road Solar, LLC.

“Turin Road Solar, LLC already had their LLC, and they didn’t even own the property,” he said. “I asked where they got their LLC from and they said New York, but if you go to some states, like Maryland, and get an LLC, you don’t have to say what it’s for. So I found that disturbing — the (parent) company was Seaboard, LLC and I read that a year ago, they had a $45 million lawsuit in Massachusetts because they put in one of six” proposed solar panels as part of a project, “and then they pulled out. The benefit they get is grants and they can sell tax credits to big corporations.”

The next concern was bonding for such projects and whether they would be properly bonded at a cost for such arrays to be torn down in 20 years, especially considering the cost of inflation.

“If they don’t make money and tear down their array in 20 years, they need to get a bond. Is the bond company reputable? Is it strictly solar? ... And is it looked at every five years for increases in the cost of labor, inflation — anything else? I didn’t get any response,” said DiCastro.

The Zoning Board member referenced Camden Central School District’s solar array, which broke ground on the north side of Route 69 back in 2017.

“Camden Schools did the job and they’re still owed $20,000. By the time they hired a lawyer, the bond company was passed down three times and it was three different bond companies. The FBI is looking into it,” DiCastro explained. “So if you think the bonding companies are reliable, they are not.”

DiCastro further explained that if Turin Road Solar met the criteria for a special area variance and the board was forced to approve the project (legally), if the project was bonded for $184,000, by 2041, the demolition and labor rate may cost up to $500,000.

“Why is that important? If a project makes enough to support taxes that’s good, but if they don’t have the money to demo, they can still just walk away. We (the city) would be responsible for the demo,” DiCastro said. “These fields do nothing for the residents — they may get a little bit of a tax credit, but the city is liable for demolition and residents wouldn’t get a break on their energy bill. If you think bonding on solar is solid, it’s not and we would be the one holding the bag. If Mr. O’Shea had not come and done such a spectacular job, those residents could’ve had the verdict go the other way. We need stringent rules and regulations on bonding so in 20 years, we know it will stay in place.”

Second Ward Councilor John B. Mortise said when the council started letting solar farms into the city, he admitted it was “a foreign language to me.”

He said there’s a solar array on Bartlett Road that’s “off the main highway that looks beautiful now, as far as aesthetics, it looks better than it did. There’s one on Rome-Westmoreland Road next to my house and I was kind of against it at the time seeing it was next to my house. But I’m not saying I’m for it.”

Meanwhile Third Ward Councilor Kimberly Rogers said council members are in the process of having legislation drafted to create a moratorium of between six months to a year on proposals for such projects and give them time to develop new rules, and tools, when it comes to solar projects.  

“I’m asking for timing on that to be done at least six months” as we had for things in the past, Rogers said. “I agree we need to take a breath and step back, and look at these things — look at the rules and where they’re not sufficient.”

“There’s timing issues,” she continued. “The bond is only as good as the person who holds the bond, but there are also a lot of other issues. We should be looking at things in a much broader area, like appropriate acreage for solar farms, so they’re not in neighborhoods; screening requirements — can you see it from the road? Zoning and planning have their own rules that they’re following. With this solar farm, these residents were lucky they had an attorney there to make the case on how they (Turin Road Solar) couldn’t meet the criteria. The criteria is made by the state, so if they met the criteria, boards had no choice” but to approve the project.

Rogers also pointed out that over time, solar panels aren’t able to produce as much energy, therefore they generate less revenue.

“We cannot say as a city you can’t have that type of business, but we can look at this from a zoning perspective,” she said. “I’m hoping the rest of the council will support that. I know residents are concerned. It’s not good business to deny all solar projects or not look into them, but we need to know what we’re getting into.”

Common Council President Stephanie Viscelli said she is also concerned that one company usually holds the solar farm while another actually owns the property, making it a “shell game.”

“I’ve dealt with decommissioning plans on some private solar farms, and the decommissioning plan became an issue because it was a very convoluted contract,” said Viscelli, adding that some owners were left to remove the solar farms, but not what’s “underground.”

“In about 15 years they peak out because they run out of grant money or tax incentives,” said the Common Council president. “Hopefully we are able to take a more detailed look at this. I think Councilor Rogers is right on track with the moratorium.”

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