Gate of Heaven Solar Farm Denial Fails in Deadlocked Vote

An aerial photo of the proposed 25-acre solar array at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne (Photo: Michael Gold)
By Michael Gold

The Mount Pleasant Planning Board deadlocked 3-3 on Aug. 5 in a vote that would have denied a 5.75-megawatt ground-mounted solar array on a 25-acre portion of Gate of Heaven Cemetery to move forward.

With board member Jane Abbate absent, the project will be subject to a new vote at a future meeting. The board’s next meeting is Sep. 2, and it has not yet been decided whether the project will be on the agenda.

“The clear-cutting of this forest is just immoral,” said Planning Board member Joan Lederman, who proposed the resolution to deny. “And I’m a member of the Church.”

“Destroying the flora and fauna is just plain wrong,” Lederman added.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York owns the cemetery and CES Hawthorne Solar, LLC is the listed applicant. Con Edison Clean Energy Businesses, which owns, develops and operates renewable energy infrastructure, is facilitating the project.

Residents, environmental groups and board members who have been skeptical of the proposal cited various concerns during the Aug. 5 public hearing, including the significant destruction of trees.

Saw Mill River Audubon Society chapter member and Briarcliff Manor resident Thomas Ruth argued that the organization supports solar projects on building roofs and parking lots. But in this case, the forested area in the cemetery is “sequestering carbon and protecting biodiversity,” Ruth said.

The Federated Conservationists of Westchester County (FCWC) submitted a letter to the board asking it to conduct further studies on the project’s environmental impact.

“FCWC holds that addressing climate change requires both the replacement of fossil fuel with clean energy and also protection of remaining natural and wilderness areas to provide wildlife, insects and plant species refuge and sustenance in the face of floods, fires, drought, heat waves and other effects of climate change,” wrote FCWC President Carol Durst-Wertheim in an Aug. 5 letter.

Pace University Energy and Climate Center wrote in support of the project on May 17, then withdrew its support two weeks later, citing the need to safeguard natural resources, including forests.

Steven Kavee, chairman of the Mount Pleasant Conservation Advisory Council, said the habitat for plants, animals and trees is too valuable to undertake wholesale clearing of the acreage where the panels would be installed.

“The idea of clear-cutting woodlands for solar is the wrong path,” Kavee said in a telephone interview with The Examiner. “We want to see renewable energy, but not at the expense of irreplaceable woodlands. We need to look at places where solar can be done without jeopardizing natural resources. The planet is at risk. This is not zero-sum.”

However, Joseph Shanahan, project manager for Con Edison Clean Energy Solutions, said the project would enhance climate resilience. It would eliminate 280 million pounds of carbon dioxide over the length of the 25-year lease, he said. In comparison, the trees that would be cut at the site would sequester 1.2 million pounds of carbon over the same period, Shanahan stated.

If the solar installation isn’t built, cemetery management will cut the trees to build new burial spaces or mausoleums, Shanahan said.

In response to critics on the board who have asked for solar panels on roofs and in parking lots, Shanahan said Con Edison Clean Energy Solutions looks for available sites.

“When we go knocking on doors not every large building owner wants solar on their rooftops, bolted to the roofs,” he said.

CES Hawthorne Solar, LLC filed responses to questions and comments raised at the Planning Board’s May 17 meeting. It stated that the cemetery has planted 350 new trees over the past few years and has plans to plant another 50 this year.” Additionally, new trees would be planted along the project fence, on Stevens Avenue and the Taconic Parkway.

Also, CES Hawthorne Solar plans to establish under the solar panels “a new and much-needed pollinator habitat in a grass meadow,” of flowering plants providing flower and nectar for pollinating insects.

The trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral wrote to the town a letter promoting the project, stating “The proposed Community Solar System is an extension of the Divine Mandate to care for all creation, a mandate that has been so eloquently articulated in recent years by Pope Francis.”

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