He Set Up a Big Solar Farm. His Neighbors Hated It.

Source: By Sarah Maslin Nir, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, March 18, 2020

A push toward renewable energy is facing resistance in rural areas where conspicuous panels are affecting vistas and squeezing small farmers.

Timothy Masters, the town building inspector in Lewiston, N.Y., has been condemned by some neighbors for allowing an energy company to place a field of solar panels on his land.
Libby March for The New York Times

LEWISTON, N.Y. — Neighbors used to wave to Timothy Masters whenever he stood outside his cherry-red barn, trading hellos across his corn and soybean fields in this small town about 10 miles north of Niagara Falls.

That ended about a year ago, when a field of solar panels was deposited on 18 acres of Mr. Masters’s land.

Mr. Masters, the building inspector in Lewiston, is among a growing number of landowners trying to cash in on New York State’s push toward renewable energy: The solar company now leasing his land, he said, pays him 20 times more than the soybean farmer who had previously rented it.

But by replacing lush green soybean plants with rows of silicon and metal solar panels, Mr. Masters has found himself the target of a growing backlash against the spread of solar farms in rural areas.

“You’ll have people that get up and say, ‘I am green,’ and ‘I’m for the environment,’ and ‘I’m pro this whole green agenda,’ but then all of a sudden whenever one comes in, it changes,” Mr. Masters said. “What I notice is people have ideals and values that they will put forth — until it comes maybe around their house.”

Opponents in New York cite reasons from practical to the aesthetic: the impact of the solar arrays on pastoral vistas, the hazard of glare for drivers passing by and even concern for endangered short-eared owls that may struggle to find field mice to eat among the panels.

There is also economic opposition from small farmers who lease land parcels from bigger farmers or landowners; they fear that they will be squeezed out by energy companies willing to pay more to use farmland for their solar cells.

Across swaths of western New York, anti-solar sentiment has fomented in heated town hall meetings and has surfaced on lawn signs and in Change.org petitions. The movement has had some effect: At least a dozen towns in New York State have placed moratoriums on new solar projects, and several others are weighing temporary bans. Local officials have said that they need time to study the potential impact of the solar farms.

The pushback is not unique to New York; in Virginia, the successful quashing of a planned 80-megawatt solar farm near Culpeper last year inspired the launch of a nonprofit with a mission to help communities across the country stop solar farms.

The grass-roots backlash against large solar farms has become so widespread that the Solar Energy Industries Association last year developed and disseminated a manual that included navigating community sensitivities, in a move to combat mounting negativity.

Abigail Ross Hopper, the president and chief executive of the association, said that many struggling farmers need the income from solar to supplement their traditional businesses; some even use grazing sheep as a way to manage the pastures surrounding the panels.

“If that narrative gains traction, that these are just big developers with little care for the communities they are operating in, that is a problem,” Ms. Hopper said. “Because you do lose the reality, which is clean energy, clean air, clean water, good jobs, local tax revenue.”

In New York, lawsuits have been traded on both sides of the aisle: One filed late last year in Duanesburg, in Schenectady County, seeks to block a proposed solar farm; another filed last March in Coxsackie, in Greene County, unsuccessfully challenged a new town zoning law that prohibited larger scale solar plants in certain areas.

“I’m not against solar power, that’s not my problem. I’m for it, but not to the point of disrupting the whole community that we’ve got there,” said Wright H. Ellis, the longtime town supervisor of Cambria in Niagara County, where a California-based company, Cypress Creek Renewables, is planning to build the Bear Ridge Solar Project. The sprawling proposed plant would total about 900 acres, much of it on prime farmland within the town limits.

“This is the wrong place to put it,” said Mr. Ellis, a former naval captain whose office inside Cambria Town Hall serves as his anti-solar war room, with petitions to sign and town zoning maps blasted in red where solar may end up. “Don’t drop it in the middle of an agricultural, residential community. You’re talking about disrupting a way of life,” he said.

Part of the impetus behind the solar power push in New York is the state’s mandate, under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, to shift 70 percent of its electricity to renewable energy sources such as solar, hydroelectric and wind power by 2030.

The move has resulted in a so-called green rush of solar developers, spurred by generous subsidies and tax breaks, to procure flat, vacant land on which to install sun-catching technology. More than 46,000 solar projects of varying sizes have been completed since 2016, according to information collected by the state.

Opposition has largely focused on large-scale solar farms. A state law known as Article 10 empowers the state to approve 25-megawatt plants or larger (a 25-megawatt solar plant generally requires more than 100 acres of land). None have yet been built via this process; 38 are making their way through the approval process, according to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

Governor Cuomo said that the state intends to streamline that process through a new Office of Renewable Energy Permitting, eventually allowing the state to preselect sites for large solar farms and assess their viability, then offer those that pass muster to developers.

“When the private developer advances it, they often generate community opposition, because they don’t bring the lens of political feasibility,” the governor said in an interview. If the state can “run the traps first on the community opposition,” Mr. Cuomo added, then some of the tensions should subside. But critics fear that the new model, if adopted, will render the community powerless to stop a preselected site.

In Niagara County, a group of residents has banded together in opposition to Cypress Creek’s application for state approval for its Bear Ridge project.

Melinda S. Olick, whose horse farm sits in the center of the proposed project, helped form Cambria Opposition to Industrial Solar, a group whose membership has grown to hundreds of members.

Her living room windows open to a rolling, fallow field on one side, and her two horses in their pasture on the other. If Bear Ridge is built, solar arrays will replace the bucolic scenes on all four sides of her home.

“This house, what I want to leave for my son, is going to be worth nothing,” Ms. Olick, a clerk in the Cambria town assessor’s office, said.

Her fight has included papering the town with anti-solar yard signs, a sideline job that has given her a higher profile in town.

“At church, people would run away from me, ‘Oh, that’s the crazy anti-solar lady,’” Ms. Olick said, “Now people are coming up to me and saying, ‘Where do you get the signs?’”

Libby March for The New York Times
Libby March for The New York Times

Cypress Creek officials said they continue to try to work with the community, noting that they had hired a local outreach coordinator, conducted site walks with community members and opened a project office to answer local questions.

“New York’s permitting processes create opportunities for the public’s questions, concerns, support and opposition to be expressed, addressed and documented,” Kevin Kohlstedt, a developer for Cypress Creek, wrote in an email. “We listen, incorporate feedback and adjust the project when possible.”

The tension over solar plants often resembles not-in-my-backyard, or Nimby, disputes. In Altamont, about 20 miles northwest of Albany, Laura Shore has spent the last several months fighting a proposed solar farm with petitions, letter-writing campaigns and media interviews.

Ms. Shore, a landscape painter, said one of her favorite scenes to paint was a local orchard with its majestic vista of the Helderberg Escarpment. The 60 plus acres were the planned site of a five-megawatt solar field, adding to two sites already in the town, and more under consideration.

“I think there is an awful lot of pressure for solar, and I think it’s really good,” said Ms. Shore, whose lobbying recently got the site moved to a less visible field. “I am willing to accept seeing solar in a lot of different settings. I just think that there are certain places that just should be off-limits.”