CATSKILL — Residents questioned the potential loss of forest habitat and property values during a public hearing on the town’s first proposed community solar farm.
Cypress Creek Renewables, a nationwide solar company pursuing property in Cairo, Greenville and Coxsackie, is seeking approval from the Catskill Town and Planning boards to build a 20-acre community solar farm on a forested property at 1180 Bogart Road in the hamlet of Palenville.
The 2-megawatt farm would power between 300 and 500 homes within the Mid-Hudson Cable region, with the potential for discounted rates for subscribers.
The site would be the first solar farm in the town of Catskill, Planning Board Chairman Joseph Izzo said last month.
Cypress Creek targets property near electrical infrastructure, with the Catskill lot sitting about 1 mile from the Central Hudson Lawrenceville substation on Route 32.
The 4-year-old company is investing $15 million to build community solar farms in Greene County after a state mandate to convert half of all electricity to renewable sources by the year 2030. In February, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced solar power increased more than 1,000 percent in the past six years, leveraging more than $2.8 billion in private investments and employing more than 12,000 workers.
Planning Board members approved Cypress Creek’s environmental review and subdivision site plan in a 6-1 vote after Tuesday’s public hearing.
Bridget Hernandez, the only board member to vote against both measures, said she wants to maintain the community’s integrity.
“I want to do what’s best for Catskill, and not let some conglomerate take advantage of us,” she said after the meeting.
Hernandez, a real estate agent, cited loss of land, property values and unanswered questions as the reason for her dissenting vote.
“Bogart Road is one of the most beautiful roads in Greene County,” she said. “To put something so unattractive there is a shame. I want it to be strategically placed — not in someone’s backyard.”
Cypress Creek usually leases acreage, but intends to buy 61 acres of the Bogart Road property to accommodate the landowner, said John Reagan, Cypress Creek Renewables senior zoning and outreach manager.
The company agreed to a deed restriction to preserve the additional 40 acres as undeveloped land. The agreement is part of the legally binding contract, Izzo said Tuesday.
The company is working with the town on a Payment In Lieu of Taxes program and decommission plan that includes a bond to protect the municipality if the company goes bankrupt.
“We took the step that allowed us to tax commercial [solar farms], but leave residents putting solar panels on their home in a tax-free status the state provided,” Catskill Town Supervisor Doreen Davis said during the meeting, adding the school will be the primary beneficiary of the company’s tax dollars.
The solar panels generate low-voltage electricity, which is converted into medium voltage alternating current electricity and connected through the grid via underground cables, according to Cypress Creek’s technical overview literature.
The equipment pad emits EMFs noticed at 1 to 2 feet away similar to standing next to a television. From farther away, the waves do not exceed those of earth’s magnetic field, according to the overview.
Some residents remained skeptical, citing unanswered questions and tests they feel are too new to show long-term consequences.
“The Society for Concerned Scientists recorded 3 to 5 percent temperature increases in neighborhoods with solar farms,” said Sue Roman, of Cairo, describing what’s known as photovoltaic heat islands. “The effects are unknown and the studies aren’t that old.”
Real estate agents also cited families fleeing their homes as a sign the sites could devalue surrounding property.
“I already have families in the area looking to sell their homes because of this [solar farm development],” said Roman, a real estate agent with Rip Van Winkle Realty.
Cypress Creek has added 8- to 10-feet-tall White Pine and Black Spruce trees on the site’s north and west side as visual screens since the last site plan, and moved the electrical interconnect point from 50 to 150 feet from the site’s southern neighbors. The farm would be enclosed by a wildlife-friendly fence, with pollinator-friendly, native grass and wildflowers growing inside.
Resident Lea Cullen Boyer, retired sustainability coordinator for Westchester County, asked for the company’s maintenance schedule and seed mixes, noting she spotted the invasive species mugwort in the company’s promotional photos.
“We’re in a turning point in this county, Palenville and Catskill in particular, where invasives are moving up,” she said. “I’d like to see the seed mix fine-tuned for this habitat.”
The project’s construction phase, slated to last 12 to 16 weeks, would be the only disruption for neighbors, Reagan said. Otherwise, the farm would introduce no lights, noise, air emissions, water usage and traffic except for a vehicle coming through to conduct an inspection once each month.
The project has been moving through the Planning Board since April 2017 in compliance with the town’s zoning and solar law. The state Department of Environmental Conservation, state Historical Preservation Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Catskill Highway Department and Kiskatom Fire Department are also reviewing the plan.
The solar panels convert sunlight into electricity by Photovoltaic (PV) technology — a process considered safe by Scenic Hudson, a not-for-profit state environmental organization. The panels don’t emit electromagnetic frequencies because they produce direct current, Reagan said.
The solar farm would not present a heightened fire hazard, Kiskatom Fire Chief Joe Caputo said after the hearing.
“There’s more of a fire load issue with structures or residences than a solar field,” he said.
Cypress Creek Renewables plans to submit additional information including an electricity interconnection pole assessment and a plan detailing seed mix, planting and maintenance plan for pollinators ahead of the Planning Board’s final vote on the project, Reagan said Wednesday.
The board plans to vote at its next regular meeting, 7 p.m. June 26.
“We will vote assuming we get clarification and answers to some of the questions at Tuesday’s public hearing,” Izzo said.