Board members voice concerns about aesthetics, impacts
By Gwendolyn Craig
The Adirondack Park Agency wrestled with balancing residents’ need for utilities with protecting iconic views on Thursday, ultimately approving a cell tower disguised as a pine tree on a hillside of deciduous trees and a large-scale solar facility in a field backdropped by mountains.
It was a busy debut meeting for APA Executive Director Barbara Rice, who had started two days prior.
“I can see my work is going to be cut out for me, but I’m excited about it and really looking forward to working with all of you,” Rice said.
The agency approved a fifth large-scale solar array in the Town of Ticonderoga, giving some board members pause about the new crop spreading across farm fields. Board members have been concerned for more than a year over the growing number of solar panel projects.
Andrea Hogan, APA board member and Town of Johnsburg supervisor, said Thursday that the solar facilities are “piling up on top of one another.”
“I’m still really concerned that as these are popping up, and they’re not far from one another, that we’re not really looking at the overall cumulative impact here,” Hogan said.
Dan Kelleher, special assistant for economic affairs at the APA, said he sent a survey to the more than 100 local governments in the park about solar project resources. Among the 37 responses, 22 said they did not have commercial solar regulations. Five said they would like to develop regulations in the future and 11 said they were unsure.
Ticonderoga is one of the park’s leaders developing solar regulations, though it’s also seeing the most proposals. Located in the Champlain Valley, the town boasts some of the best farmland in the mostly mountainous and swampy Adirondack Park. Empty fields are attracting solar developers. Town Supervisor Mark Wright did not immediately return the Adirondack Explorer’s calls seeking comment. Former Town Supervisor Joseph Giordano had told The Explorer last year that solar projects were expected and welcome but the town had to decide to what extent.
The latest project the APA board approved on Thursday is a 5-megawatt solar facility on 22 acres off Charboneau Road.
Ariel Lynch, an environmental program specialist with the APA, showed photos of the existing agriculture fields and renderings of the scene with panels. The photos taken in the fall show a colorful, mountainous backdrop. The 215-acre project site is visible from state Route 9N.
The renderings showed 12-foot-tall solar panels that rotate with the sun and are surrounded by an 8-foot-tall woven wire fence. Ticon Solar, the corporation sponsoring the project, will plant a pollinator seed mix. It also plans to install 367 trees and 954 shrubs to provide a visual buffer around the panels.
Hogan said she was glad to see the pollinator plantings. She worried, however, about the impact to larger wildlife as more of these fenced-in solar projects are built in the same town.
Art Lussi, an APA board member, also wondered if the plantings would be enough to screen the panels from the roadside.
“This is the first time in a solar review that I’ve actually felt that there would be an impact to vistas in the background,” Lussi said. “You’re still going to be able to see the vistas and the mountains in the background, but the foreground is definitely impacted.”
Lussi had said something similar about a 5-megawatt project approved in the Town of Moriah the board approved last year. That project, Lussi said, would have “a tremendous impact on a pretty area of land.”
Board Member Ken Lynch also asked if the town had considered impacts to farmland.
Lynch said the town planning and zoning board is expected to hold a public hearing on the project on May 5.
The APA board passed the latest solar project unanimously, though Board Member Zoe Smith was absent.
Board members also spent more than an hour discussing infrastructure disguises on Thursday before approving an ATT cell tower to go up on Fraker Mountain in Saratoga County’s Town of Edinburgh. The tower will be visible from Great Sacandaga Lake.
After reviewing renderings of the tower disguised as a pine tree, several board members felt the disguise made the tower stand out more. A Saratoga County emergency services tower already built on Fraker Mountain was not as visible as the pine tree tower, many board members said.
Lynch said it was a little ironic that the disguise stood out. The pine tree was more visible, Lussi said, considering the hillside was covered in mostly trees that lose their leaves in fall and winter. Lussi suggested the agency recommend ATT not disguise the tower, but APA counsel and staff said the permit before the board included staff’s recommendation that the tower be disguised.
APA Board Member Mark Hall also asked about whether the height of the tower could be extended and cover more gaps in cell service, considering that’s a state priority to “close the digital divide.”
Rice suggested the APA develop a subcommittee to discuss the agency’s tower policy and connectivity in the park. The agency’s tower policy was last updated in 2002.
Lussi and Hall both voted against the project. Lussi said he didn’t think the disguise met the standards in the tower policy. Hall said he was voting against it because he wanted the APA’s permit to be less restrictive. The project still passed.