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Columbia County Solar Project Divides Residents

WAMC File Photo

A battle is brewing over a Chicago company's plans to construct a solar farm in Columbia County.

In March 2018 it was announced that Hecate Energy would construct a solar facility in the town of Copake, one of 26 large scale renewable energy initiatives selected through a competitive process by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. Town Supervisor Jeanne Mettler:

“The company came to the town in 2017. And at that time, they gave a presentation people heard their ideas. And then they did not reappear in town hall until 2020. In January of 2020, they came and met with a few of us and advised us of their current plan, which is much bigger than what they had talked about in 2017.”

The solar farm project covers 255 acres. Copake has a zoning law in place limiting the size of solar installations to 10 acres or less.  Mettler notes a state siting process passed during 2020 state budget negotiations changed that, completely circumventing local ordinances.

“At the time, both town, and also the county Board of Supervisors passed resolutions opposing that proposed law, but the law went through. And so now there was this new entity, new process, which really accelerated the permitting process. So at this point, Hecate has given notice that they will proceed by way of 94-C. The town is not entitled to any kind of a hearing. This is not a judicial process. This is an administrative process that was created to accelerate the permitting process.”

Hannah Mandel  has lived in the town since 1989.

“The reason I am so concerned about the building of the Hecate solar farm is because it's an enormous project, it was reduced from 500 acres to 250. I think it's now 250 acres, we are totally impacted by it. We have a small house on the top of the hill, on county route 7-A or Center Hill Road, and the proposed farm would be directly in front of us.”

Mendel says she would rather see blue skies and green fields keeping with Copake's agricultural character, rather than a field of solar panels that would reduce the town to an industrial area.

“And we just thought that we would retire here and, you know, go out from here, where my husband and I are both in our eighties.  And it's just, it's very, very, very sad and very, we're extremely bothered by it. It's not that we're against solar energy, by no stretch of the imagination, we are not against solar energy, we're all for it. But we don't feel that a small little community like Copake should bear the complete burden of the solar energy for New York State. I mean, it seems like if they built this farm, it would be, you know, for half of the state. And we feel that other little, other communities should bear somewhat of the burden.”

Mettler says the project, known as Shepherd's Run, is contrary to the town's comprehensive plan, farmland protection plan, and zoning laws.

“We have encouraged green energy and renewable energy. But we've also seen the responsibility to balance that with preservation of our own landscape, our natural resources, our wildlife habitat, our prime farmland. And this project, as opposed, proposed rather, really just tramples not just at home rule, and not just on our laws, but also on our local environment and the viewsheds and the wildlife and the prime farmland that we treasure.”

Supporters of the project say it will help mitigate climate change. Juan-Pablo Velez with Friends of Columbia Solar says the impact of the 65 megawatt project on the town will be minimal.

“I don't think solar panels are actually industrial, that's kind of what's miraculous about them, they create clean energy without any industrial byproduct. So they're totally non toxic, they're recyclable. They don't have any environmental impact. And that's the first thing to call out. It's really not like you're building a, like an industrial power plant or natural gas plant or something. But I understand the point of view, the concern about, you know, the visual impact, I would just say that 80 acres of solar panels works out to 0.3% of the area of the town. So it's really not it's, I don't know that it can destroy the whole town if you're taking less than 1% of the town and putting panels on it. And some of them will probably be visible from the road, but other others won't.”

Mettler says the town's attorney wrote to Hecate, inviting the company to consider their requests for a modification of the construction plan, but has yet to hear back. Again, Velez.

"We really care about the town, like everyone else does. We just have a different point of view about the project. But that doesn't mean that we aren't sensitive to people's concerns, and we definitely think that we should address them as much as possible."

Hecate did not respond to a request for comment in time for broadcast.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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