Fulton County dairy farm hopes solar will save its lands; public has mixed reaction to 40-megawatt project
By Gwendolyn Craig
Nearly 100 people attended an open house Wednesday night about a proposed 40-megawatt solar array in the town of Mayfield in Fulton County. If built, it will become the largest solar project in the Adirondack Park to date. The facility plans are an example, too, of some of the park’s remaining dairy farmers looking for a new cash crop to make ends meet.
Solar developer Boralex Inc. is looking to place 200 acres of panels on the Close brothers’ family dairy farm. Fifth-generation farmer Jon Close, 64, said the family owns about 800 acres total, including a bucolic hillside on Great Sacandaga Lake that he will leave undeveloped so as not to ruin the view.
It has been a struggle to keep the farm, Close said, between the stagnant price of milk and trouble finding employees.
“This opportunity came along, so we’re going to take advantage of it,” Close said. “The money that we’ll receive for the panels will keep things going and down the road, it’s our hope that it will be returned to farming, whereas if it goes into homes, golf courses, condos or whatever, it will be gone forever.”
The solar farm is more than double the size of the largest project approved in the Adirondack Park so far. Gov. Kathy Hochul first announced the facility in June, part of a round-up of 22 large-scale renewable energy projects.
Because of its size, the arrays will be reviewed by the state Office of Renewable Energy Siting (ORES), an agency established in 2020 “to consolidate the environmental review and permitting of major renewable energy facilities in New York State in a single forum.” The Adirondack Park Agency, the state organization charged with overseeing public and private development in the approximately 6-million-acre park, will be able to provide input through the ORES process, but will not be reviewing a permit for the project, said APA spokesman Keith McKeever.
Darren Suarez, vice president of public affairs and communications for Boralex, said the company wasn’t looking to host a project inside the Blue Line because the permitting process is so new.
“We were really hesitant about going forward initially,” Suarez said. The company saw value in working with Close, however, and it is hoping all voices will be heard throughout the permitting process.
Suarez and others from Boralex had a chance to hear from some of the public on Wednesday, and not all are happy with the plans or how the permitting process is unfolding. One attendee worried the project was already a done deal.
Suarez said the project is still in the early stages of development and the open house was intended to allow representatives to have conversations with the public.
Zachary Hutchins, a spokesperson for Boralex, later told the Explorer Boralex has found the open house format to be better for allowing more people to attend. There are no plans at this time to hold a public meeting in a speaker presentation format.
Kathy Baker, who lives directly across from the Close Farm, was trembling as she spoke with a reporter about an eyesore becoming her new view. When asked if she would support the project if she knew the panels were not going to be on the hillside near the lake, Baker said she was still worried about groundwater pollution. She was especially worried about how the solar array may be decommissioned, and if panels would be left on the farm to deteriorate.
“It’s part of the Adirondack Park where they don’t allow cell towers, but yet they’re going to allow these,” Baker said. “It doesn’t make any sense.” (The APA has a tower policy that includes restrictions on where cell towers can go.)
Hutchins said the panels are solid, and there are no concerns about liquid contaminating the groundwater. A spokesperson for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority said while there are ongoing studies, no data at this time demonstrates that panels have any impact on water quality.
There will also be a decommissioning plan in place, along with a bond, so there is insurance that the site will be cleaned up once it has fulfilled its use. Hutchins said decommissioning plans would transfer with any new owners, should something happen to the company, too.
Boralex representatives and Close continued to stress that despite not knowing exactly where the panels will be placed yet, there will be none visible from Great Sacandaga Lake. Close said some woodland will have to be cut, however.
Boralex plans to submit its application to ORES sometime this year, with hopes of a determination by mid-2024 and construction into 2025. Should the project come online in 2025, it would help the state with one of its first climate benchmarks of reaching 6,000 megawatts of distributed solar by that year. The state needs to reach 10,000 megawatts of distributed solar by 2030.
A few town board members were at the open house on Wednesday night, but declined to tell the Explorer their thoughts on the project.
Support for the project
Many Close family members and friends came out to support Jon Close. Doug Bradt, who lives in Mayfield and is the partner of one of Jon Close’s cousins, said he thought the solar facility was important to reducing the nation’s reliance on oil.
“It’s going to be clean energy,” Bradt said. “If it wasn’t for the solar fields, we would be having a housing development back there.”
Richard Travis, who lives in Mayfield, said there’s not much other recourse for his friend Jon Close, and he’s glad the land won’t be commercially developed.
“He’s trying to save his farm,” Travis said. “We all have to survive one way or another.”
Other projects, concerns
Boralex has several other solar farms it is proposing just outside the Adirondack Park, including a 100-megawatt project in Washington County. The solar array in Fort Edward is of particular concern to the National Audubon Society and local organization the Grassland Bird Trust because it is proposed in an Important Bird Area. Those “are distinct areas that provide essential habitat to one or more species of birds in breeding, wintering, or migration,” according to Audubon. The grasslands are also habitats for the state-endangered short-eared owl and the state-threatened northern harrier hawk.
Katherine Roome, a board member of the Grassland Bird Trust, attended the Mayfield meeting. She was expecting to see more information about birds and wetlands for the Close Farm site, but Boralex did not have any posters regarding those items.
Mike Burger, executive director of Audubon Connecticut and New York and vice president of the National Audubon Society, said his organization is monitoring solar projects across the state and is in support of renewable energy initiatives. In a phone interview on Thursday, he said Audubon would like to see the Washington County grasslands proposal be modified. Burger believes nesting grassland birds will leave the area if solar panels are placed there.
Melissa Mansfield, a Boralex spokeswoman, said the company is still working on the design of the Fort Edward project to minimize impacts to birds.
At the Mayfield site, Close and Boralex representatives said they are conducting bird, wetland and other studies on the property and plan to share them with APA staff once they are completed. Close also hopes to raise bees, graze sheep and plant pollinator gardens among the panels to expand what his farm currently has to offer.
“We’re not getting out of farming,” Close said. “Yes, there’s going to be panels, but that’s allowing us to keep going. It’s just a never-ending battle.”
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