Mount Pleasant Planning Board members and neighboring residents of Gate of Heaven Cemetery indicated last week that they are apprehensive about a proposed 4.375-megawatt solar farm on an unused 32-acre portion of the cemetery’s grounds.
The ground-mounted solar array pitched by CES Hawthorne Solar, LLC on behalf of Gate of Heaven and the Trust of St. Patrick’s Cathedral would produce 7.2 million kilowatt hours of clean energy annually during the proposed 25-year lease, said Joe Shanahan, project developer for Con Edison Clean Energy Businesses. The town would receive annual payments in lieu of taxes of $47,800 on land that is currently tax exempt, he said.
About 200 area residents and businesses could sign up for the less expensive electricity from energy derived from the project. They would each receive a roughly 10 percent discount on their electric bills by signing up for the program.
CES Hawthorne Solar needs site plan approval, steep slopes and wetlands permits and a special permit to install the array.
Shanahan said before the start of the Planning Board’s May 17 public hearing that the town has been diligent in addressing a litany of issues that the applicant has sought to satisfy. He said the town had the foresight to adopt zoning laws to allow for more solar.
“Until every question and concern has been satisfactorily addressed, this board would not allow us to schedule this public hearing,” Shanahan said. “That is doing it right, and in the end, has made this a better project for the developer, the land owner and the community.”
However, board members and residents were highly skeptical about the advantages the project would provide the town and the environment, including the need to clear-cut acres of trees. Board member Joan Lederman contended that the loss of trees and the relatively modest annual payment to the town is a poor tradeoff.
Lederman said while she applauds St. Patrick’s representatives for placing solar panels on many of its church and school roofs, they are painting “a very pretty picture” of what will actually be occurring at Gate of Heaven.
“What you are proposing here is clear-cutting acres and acres of forest land, hundreds of trees will be cut down. They are a habitat for many animals and birds,” Lederman said. “Trees not only absorb carbon dioxide; they also give off oxygen. I don’t think your solar panels give off any oxygen.”
She and Board Chairman Michael McLaughlin also wanted to know who the 200 customers are that would benefit from the solar farm and how they would be selected.
Several residents expressed dismay at aspects of the proposal. West Stevens Avenue resident Mary Haggerty, who identified herself as a pro-renewable energy advocate, said she was troubled by the environmental damage that would apparently be caused.
“I think the cutting of the trees is not a benefit and is a great loss,” Haggerty said. “I’m disappointed in Con Ed for approaching a property owner that has woods and undisturbed lands rather than approaching the many corporate parks that we have in our town to install solar panels on their roofs and in their parking lots.”
A more than 50-year town resident, Jerry Falco, said he was also unsettled by the loss of habitat and the deforestation that would have to take place to make room for the solar panels, even though he supports solar power in general.
“So I’m not quite clear that this is maybe the right location for it, but I think we have to have some serious consideration for it,” Falco said. “This is a very big project and it’s located in a position in a saturated area where the power could really do some good.”
Other speakers indicated they were concerned about noise or visual impacts from the array and if there was any potential for flooding, particularly on the nearby Taconic State Parkway, because of the tree cutting.
Shanahan said during his presentation that the loss of the trees on the 32-acre site is estimated to cost one to two million pounds of carbon dioxide over the 25-year while the renewable energy produced by the array would have a 280-million-pound offset in the same time period.
Board member Jane Abbate said the proposed array would reach a height of 12 feet.
“I’m trying to get my head around it,” Abbate said. “I can see a three-foot headstone that’s on the ground but I can’t see a 12-foot (high) solar panel?”
Conservation Advisory Council Chairman Steven Kavee was among those who corrected Shanahan by stating that Mount Pleasant doesn’t have a comprehensive solar law but the Town Board approved zoning text amendments related to solar last year.
McLaughlin and board member James Collins called on the applicants to answer a series of questions and concerns before the hearing may resume at a future date.
“This has burst upon the town, burst upon the Planning Board, burst upon town residents in the last month, so they’re going to have to have time to get these issues squared away,” McLaughlin. said.
McLaughlin said in addition to who would receive the power, he wanted to know why the applicant wasn’t reaching out to office parks and whether Con Edison Green Business is in any way affiliated with the utility. He and other board members wanted to learn more about the various business arrangements connected to the proposal.
Collins called on the applicant to conduct a tree study and retain an energy consultant so the board and the town can have greater clarity on the loss of the vegetation and impact on the environment. He also wanted to know why a 12-foot-high array has been proposed. Mount Kisco, for example, has a seven-and-a-half-foot maximum height for ground-mount solar panels and requires a conservation district of at least 25 acres with a 200-foot buffer, he said.
The state Department of Transportation should also be notified.
“I’m not for nor against it; I just want to make sure that we think this through and we investigate this and we definitely identify the unhappy path and decrease these unhappy impediments and move it toward a happier path,” Collins said.
The applicant will return when they address the issues and questions posed by the board.