Mount Pleasant Planning Board Rejects Gate of Heaven Solar Farm

By Michael Gold

The Mount Pleasant Planning Board voted 5-0 to deny an application to build a 5.75-megawatt solar farm in the Gate of Heaven cemetery in Valhalla at its Sept. 2 meeting.

Board members Patsy Fucale and George Pappas were absent.

The Archdiocese of New York (ADNY) owns the cemetery. Con Edison Solutions (CES) Hawthorne Solar LLC, which would have built the array, applied to the town for the permit.

The extensive damage from the remnants of Hurricane Ida, which struck the region the previous evening, helped define the debate at the meeting.

Trees would have had to be cleared on the 25-acre portion of the cemetery where the array would have been located. Hills without trees are often subject to mudslides during torrential rains, members of the board said.

“(T)he hill would be down the road, with the storm last night,” stated board member Joan Lederman.

“This is not a responsible project,” Lederman added. “It proposes clear-cutting acres and acres of trees.”

“The cutting of the trees, I don’t like it,” said board member James Collins. “It would help to have a robust landscape plan to mitigate that.”

Before the vote, board Chairman Michael McLaughlin and town planning consultant Patrick Cleary discussed the possibility of withdrawing the board’s previous negative declaration for the project under the state Environmental Quality Review, which found that the array would not have significant adverse environmental impacts. With the vote denying the permit, that action is no longer necessary, Cleary said.

“It’s a new technology,” said McLaughlin, referring to solar energy. “This project started in 2019. We need to take a better look at whether this is the right thing to do. We need more study. I’m conflicted. We started off thinking this is a great application. The location scares people.”

The applicant and the archdiocese can file an Article 78 in state Supreme Court asking the court to overturn the Planning Board’s decision.

John Kirkpatrick, the attorney for CES Hawthorne, declined to comment on the board’s decision or what further action his client may take. Martin Susz, director of energy management for the archdiocese, also declined to comment.

Lederman said “there are plenty of places to put solar on roofs. We’ve got roofs all over the place.”

“Putting solar panels in cow pastures makes a great deal of sense,” McLaughlin said.

Last week’s vote came four weeks after the board deadlocked 3-3 on a permit denial.

Steven Kavee, chairman of the town’s Conservation Advisory Council, said the proposed solar farm “was not consistent with the letter of the law” and that its consequences would be detrimental to the town.

Mount Pleasant’s zoning regarding solar array installations states that “removal of existing trees larger than six inches in diameter should be minimized to the greatest extent possible,” Kavee said.

“The idea is not to sacrifice natural resources but to protect them if you are installing solar,” he explained. “Applicants should be looking at sites that are not forested. There are numerous opportunities to do solar.”

Forests also provide considerable stormwater mitigation, he said. With more intense storms occurring more frequently, forests help protect against its effects.

A number of local environmental and government groups had written letters to the board expressing opposition to the project, including Saw Mill River Audubon, the Federated Conservationists of Westchester County and the Westchester County Planning Board.

“We believe that a portion of the site comprises the headwaters of Davis Brook, tributary to the Bronx River, and that denuding the hillside of the forest buffer area will have a negative impact on the wetlands that feeds David Brook and in turn the Bronx River,” wrote Robert DelTorto, president of the Bronx River Parkway Reservation Conservancy, in a June 3, 2021, letter to the board.

“I am writing to express concern regarding the proposal…to permit the clearing of forest by a private utility company,” DelTorto also stated.

Additionally, Westchester County Planning Commissioner, Norma V. Drummond, wrote on June 14, “While we are generally supportive of adding more solar power to our region’s energy grid, it should not be done at great expense to other environmental factors, such as the carbon-negative impact of deforestation.”

CES Hawthorne Solar had filed documents with the town explaining that the project would have provided climate resilience by saving 280 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions over the course of the 25-year lease, equivalent to taking 328 million cars off the road. In comparison, the trees on-site would have sequestered only 1.2 million pounds of carbon dioxide during the same period.

The Town of Mount Pleasant would have received about $40,000 a year for the duration of the lease.

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