Councilors OK moratorium on solar arrays

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Two members of the community recommended that councilors “think of the people” and hold developers accountable before allowing the construction of solar arrays within the city during a public hearing on Ordinance 9477, calling for a six-month moratorium on the establishment and construction of solar arrays which was ultimately passed on Wednesday.

Prior to the Common Council meeting, a public hearing on the ordinance was held in Common Council Chambers of City Hall where Ed Browka, of Brown Road, and Attorney J. Kevin O’Shea, of Ironwood Drive, said it’s not that they don’t support green energy or solar developments, but that they should be constructed in commercial and industrial areas, not near anyone’s homes. They also said efforts should be made to ensure developers are held liable for any decommissioning costs associated with tearing town a solar farm once the panels have reached their end-of-life.

Browka, an engineer, recommended to the Common Council that there be measures in place to ensure the city doesn’t become responsible for the decommissioning costs of a solar array site and that developers are held responsible for protecting wildlife, making sure vegetation is replanted, and that they are consistently checking and maintaining the panels and structures.

“I support the local solar law and it will be a real benefit if there are codes that protect the environment and our neighborhoods, and that we attract responsible companies,” Browka said.

Back in August, O’Shea and several of his neighbors, led the charge before the Zoning Board of Appeals, which decided unanimously to reject a request for an area variance by Turin Road Solar, LLC to build a proposed 31-acre solar array in a neighborhood off Ironwood Drive. He thanked the zoning board and Fifth Ward Councilor Frank R. Anderson for supporting neighbors, reiterating studies that show solar array developments in residential areas result in depreciated property values.

“The solar people were good folks trying to make a buck, and saw that they could make a profit, and the landowner was trying to make a buck, which was all legal, and so the developer” planned to put a project “in the ground and sell electricity to National Grid. But most of the time, that money is headed out of state or the area — it doesn’t stick around here,” said O’Shea. “Other than the initial construction and taxes the city gets, there’s no local benefit. But the residents take the hit — so tonight in your deliberations, I want you to think about the human beings who live in neighborhoods and whose property would be depreciated…You need to keep solar arrays away from residential neighborhoods.”

O’Shea also suggested the city require that developers have a bond on the project with a long-standing, reputable A-rated insurance company to ensure that Rome is not footed the bill when developers abandon a solar project, go bankrupt or the panels have reached their life expectancy.

The city “should revisit the bond every five years and require the developer to have an expert figure out again” if the bond will provide the sufficient funds to decommission a site in 20-30 years due to inflation or other unanticipated costs. O’Shea also cautioned the city that LLCs are not illegal, but are merely “‘shells’ — you can’t see inside them and they can be from out-of-state and you don’t know where they are, who the owners are, and how it’s being transferred — you’re dealing with unknown characters.”

O’Shea did answer the question as to why developers are interested in developing near residential areas — so they can have a cheaper, more easily accessible “interconnection point.”

The “economic answer is that they have to run their electricity into the grid, and their cable must have an interconnection point, which are not in rural areas, and the cost of running a cable from a farm, even just a mile to the connection point, is about $1 million,” the attorney said. “A solar project quickly becomes uneconomical, so they want to be as close to the interconnection point as possible and lower the cost of that cable. But if there’s a cost to be born, let the developer take the cost, because if we allow them close to residences, the owners are going to take the hit.”

O’Shea said as part of codes, the city should require an application fee — perhaps between $10,000 to $15,000 — to “put enough money in your pocket so you (the city) can hire experts who will advise you on decommissioning and bonds, and details about solar farms that you and I know little about.”

The attorney then commented that he was “surprised at the silence of the city” when he and neighbors spoke out against the Turin Road Solar, LLC proposed project. O’Shea said he and Councilor Anderson were the only ones who “stuck notices in mailboxes and organized our neighborhood.”

As far as the state laws and guidelines that the zoning board must abide by when considering variance requests, “there’s not a word about the human beings,” O’Shea said. “There’s nothing about how” solar arrays “affect the people living nearby…so when you draft this legislation, you have to put the human beings into the legislation — whether they’re appropriate or not in certain locations and the effects solar farms have on them.”

“Yes, animals and trees are important, but city residents are the most important, and that should be on the top of the list,” he added. “Green energy is the way of the future and there’s a place for solar in Rome, but it has to be the right place.”

During the council’s deliberation on the Ordinance, Third Ward Councilor Kimberly Rogers said after hearing the public comments, zoning updates should definitely be considered for solar arrays and the decommissioning of them “is definitely on top of the list.”

During her own research of municipalities considering similar legislation, Rogers said she found that some cities have set up a fund account, with a monthly or annual charge to the account to cover for possible decommissioning fees, “so that was a good point to make about the application fee, and I would ask the council to review that.”

Rogers said there are also other issues to consider, like the environmental impact, stormwater drainage on potential sites, lighting glare…”that we didn’t think about when the code was updated” in 2018.

“I think we need to take a hard look at where they’re allowed to be located,” she said, adding that community members looking to provide input about solar arrays should contact their individual councilors or Common Council President Stephanie Viscelli.

Councilor Anderson said it was his “hope” that the moratorium would be for a year, rather than six months, “because I think there’s a lot of work to be done, but that was met with minor opposition from the administration, that’s why we got this to six months.”

As to the economical reasons why developers are looking to construct solar arrays in residential neighborhoods rather than agricultural districts, as mentioned by O’Shea, Anderson said, “We need to make sure we protect the people Of the city of Rome, and that’s where codes needs to be tweaked, to say the least.”

He also warned his fellow councilors that if the situation with Turin Road Solar, LLC happened once, it could happen again and that the city needs to be prepared.

“I give full support to the moratorium, but there’s a lot of work to be done…it allows us to take a breath and really give this thought, and prepare us for the future,” the councilor said.

The council then voted unanimously to support the ordinance.

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