Public Hearing Set for Solar Farm Proposed at Gate of Heaven Cemetery

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Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne
Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne could be home to a 56 megawatt ground mounted solar panel array if applicant CES Hawthorne Solar receives town approval

A public hearing has been scheduled for May 17 to hear comments on the 5.6-megawatt ground-mounted solar farm proposed for an unused portion of Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne.

The Mount Pleasant Planning Board set the date after the applicant, CES Hawthorne Solar, LLC, sufficiently answered enough questions that planners had posed last September. Planners had requested information on a variety of issues, most notably specific details on the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program that would be paid to the town, maintenance of the panels and removal of the equipment.

Last year, the Town Board approved a zoning text amendment that allowed for solar arrays if the applicant received a special permit.

Gate of Heaven, which has been owned and operated by St. Patrick’s Cathedral since 1916, is planning to set aside 46 of its roughly 200 acres at the cemetery for the panels. The array, which would produce about 7.2 million kilowatts of energy each year, would be spread over about 32 acres. Gate of Heaven is not planning to use the acreage for graves for at least the length of the 25-year lease.

The solar farm would generate electricity for about 200 residences. Local residents would have a chance to sign up to be part of the program, saving an estimated $360 a year on electric bills, said Steven Onidshin, project manager for CES Hawthorne Solar. Area churches and Catholic schools would also benefit from receiving power at a lower cost.

Last September, the applicant had estimated the project would generate 7.5 million kilowatts annually and power up to 1,000 homes.

“It’s important to point out that this particular parcel currently produces no taxes,” Onidshin said. “So the cemetery is a nonprofit organization; therefore, this project will be providing some additional income for the town without putting a strain on schools or infrastructure.”

Onidshin said that the tentative PILOT program would bring in $47,800 a year in revenue for the town for the duration of the lease.

He assured board members that the array and the site would be kept in good condition, landscaped with grass and screened with shrubs and trees on the perimeter. Any equipment related to the array would be stored in containers that are not visible to passersby, Onidshin said. There would also be no equipment from other solar farms projects that would be brought to Gate of Heaven.

Onidshin outlined the environmental benefits of the array. The energy produced during the 25 years would help save emissions from 328 million passenger car miles, 5.6 million bags of trash trucked to a landfill and 280 million pounds of CO2. The current trees that are on site would only help reduce about 1.2 million pounds of carbon, he said.

Several points and questions were raised last week, which will be addressed more extensively at the public hearing. Chairman Michael McCarthy said he didn’t believe it was appropriate for churches and parochial schools, which don’t pay any taxes, to benefit from the projected reduced energy costs.

“If that’s the case, then what you are doing, in essence, is having the public taxpayers support a part of the cost,” McCarthy said. “If St. Pat’s or the (archdiocese) want to benefit their schools, there’s a way for them do to that and that is to give them back some money.”

Board member James Collins said he wants to make sure the town notifies a larger assortment of property owners than is required by local law for the public hearing. He said only adjoining property owners need to be formally notified but there are no adjoining property owners in this case because the cemetery is so large.

One possibility would be to contact Robert Place residents, who are directly across the Sprain Brook Parkway from the site, he said.

“I don’t think it’s good enough for us to rely exclusively on members of the public to self-notify,” Collins said. “I just think that we have to make sure the experts are engaged and we have to make sure the public is engaged.”

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