Proliferation of projects leaves some asking ‘how much is too much?’
By Tim Rowland
Two years before Covid electrified the Adirondack property market, a different kind of land boom was shaping up in Ticonderoga, not in real estate agencies, but in the permitting offices of town hall and the Adirondack Park Agency.
Fueled by New York’s mission to ensure that 70% of its electricity be derived from renewables by 2030 and the corresponding incentives to help that happen, lands with potential for solar became the hottest ticket in Ti.
Bill Polihronakis, who lives on the main drag north out of the hamlet, got a firsthand view of just how intense the market had become. He owned what by all appearances was the ideal piece of ground for a commercial solar array. Close to 40 acres, the flat, open land north of Ticonderoga was sized right for a typical 5-megawatt system capable of lighting 40 homes.
It sat in a location where the panels would not be seen by the public at large, and the acreage had once been an orchard, which made it good for little else. The trees had been pulled 30 to 40 years ago, Polihronakis said, but hazardous chemicals from decades of pesticide sprays remained in the soil and will remain for a long time to come.
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Concerned about climate change, Polihronakis said he became interested in solar farms both from an environmental and economic perspective. He lined up a company that would install the panels and pay $65,000 annually to lease the ground. Then, to make sure he was doing everything right, Polihronakis contacted the town and the Adirondack Park Agency in advance to assure compliance with all existing regulations. APA staff walked the ground and noted where wetlands would limit some of the development. Only after doing all this due diligence did Polihronakis call National Grid to announce his intentions. What he learned was that other Ticonderoga landowners had beaten him to it, reserving transmission-line capacity first, figuring to worry about the legalities later. As such, there was more interest in solar energy than the lines could handle. Finding himself blocked, he dropped his solar pursuits.
Ticonderoga Supervisor Mark Wright said seven projects are either proposed townwide or are already approved — “so many that I had to start a spreadsheet.” “Almost every planning and zoning meeting we have now will include something that has to do with solar,” Wright said.
Farmer retirements and the economics of agriculture had already driven much of this land out of production. A once-thriving dairy industry has dwindled to the brink of extinction in Essex County, meaning that a lot of pastureland and hayfields are turning to seed.
“The farmland wasn’t being used, and a lot of people saw this as an opportunity to make some money,” Wright said.
While these projects to date have taken up only an infinitesimal amount of acreage, they have still raised questions—in the town, at the APA, in the farm community and across the Adirondack Park—about how much oversight should be afforded these arrays, what they mean to a community and whether such a cluster could happen elsewhere within the Blue Line.
It’s “highly unlikely other areas of the Park will see the level of interest that Ticonderoga is experiencing,” said Jason Gough, a spokesman for Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Ticonderoga just happened to have all the right ingredients for solar arrays, Gough said: flat, open ground, clear southern exposures, and most important, big three-phase transmission lines capable of handling the power pumped out by a solar array. Because the Adirondacks have a dearth of three-phase power lines—the ones on wooden or steel towers, not poles—commercial solar development in the preponderance of the park is unlikely.
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Nor, for solar purposes, is all farmland created equal. “It’s obscenely expensive to run three-phase power,” said Kim Trombly, county manager for the New York Farm Bureau. That means the suitable lines must basically run above the proposed array for it to be cost effective.
Like others, the Farm Bureau has a “nuanced” view of solar energy, Trombly said. It approves of renewable energy but is wary of projects that could potentially encroach upon agricultural land. As such, the bureau supports solar, but prefers old industrial sites and brownfields for them.
To perhaps a lesser degree, Ticonderoga’s situation may spread to other parts of the Champlain Valley, said Carly Summers, agricultural issues leader for the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Essex County. “Farmers from all across the county are getting calls” from solar developers, she said. As farming has become less profitable, big payouts from solar can look awfully good, particularly as farmers look to retire. A better solution, Summers believes, are easements, which pay farmers cash for preserving farmland and selling it at a discount to young people who want to farm.
But the speed of solar has left other potential options in the dust.
Unlike most Adirondack governments, the Ticonderoga town board anticipated solar projects and passed a moratorium on them in 2017 to set planning and zoning regulations. That may have encouraged solar companies to come to Ti, because it helped them know what was expected and allowed.
“Without any solar regulations in place, projects simply could not move forward,” said Joe Giordano, who was supervisor at the time. “In December 2019, an updated zoning law and site plan review law was finally adopted to address solar development. This is when the solar developers had the green light to begin vetting their proposals in front of the planning board.”
In addition, the board worked with the Essex County Industrial Development Agency to develop a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) schedule that would generate revenue for the town.
Giordano said state incentives also helped light the fuse on solar. Through a program called NY-Sun, Gough said, NYSERDA targeted $1.8 billion in subsidies to solar developers to make the projects affordable and help create options to legacy generators.
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The town regulations primarily focused on setbacks, viewsheds and decommissioning plans to ensure that infrastructure would not become an eyesore once it had passed its useful life. From the public’s perspective, maintaining unspoiled views was the primary goal. “The only pushback I’ve seen is from people who think they’re ugly and don’t want to see them,” Wright said. “We have beautiful views here, and people don’t want them scarred by large solar panel installations.”
But the law has not been entirely successful in safeguarding views, say Joe and Alicia Vilardo, who plan to build a home overlooking a pristine valley where the acclaimed British General George Augustus Howe was killed on the eve of the Battle of Carillon near Fort Ticonderoga. “The view means everything, really,” said Alicia, who grew up on Race Track Road across from the proposed project. “It’s one of the most scenic spots in the area.”
So the Vilardos were dismayed when plans surfaced for a solar array on the far side of the Lord Howe Valley which, unlike previous proposals, are on the flank of a mountainside, not down in a depression or hidden by vegetation.
“We’re not against solar energy whatsoever, but Lord Howe Valley is supposed to be a scenic vista,” Joe said. “I can’t believe all these agencies just signed right off on it.”
The APA has limited jurisdiction, becoming involved only where environmentally sensitive areas such as wetlands are concerned. And many of the solar projects have been proceeding in Ticonderoga with little to no public comment.
“I never heard any comment good, bad or ugly until the one on Race Track Road came along,” said Ticonderoga Board Member Dave Woods. Many, Joe Vilardo believes, aren’t aware of the project yet, since only adjoining property owners receive written notification of the project proposal. He suspects several people will be surprised, and not pleasantly so, when panels are installed.
Nor was the effect on farmland consumption, soil quality and other agricultural implications part of the early discussions, something Giordano now believes could have been useful. “For instance, what percentage of the prime farmland should be developed so as to not hinder our agricultural economy?” he said. “That conversation didn’t happen until after the law was passed, but it would have been a good conversation to have.”
Solar was happening so fast that “everybody was scrambling,” and not all angles were considered, he said.
According to the governor’s office, these small solar facilities are contributing. There are currently 3,845 megawatts of solar generation statewide, enough to power more than 670,000 homes, with another 2,345 megawatts in the pipeline.
Andrea Hogan, the Town of Johnsburg supervisor and an APA commissioner, said she’s watched with some concern as solar farm proposals have popped up “like mushrooms” with little forewarning and little thought as to how they should be regulated.
“A lot of towns don’t have anything in the code, and they’re going to need a lot more information”, she said. Two arrays have been proposed for Johnsburg. She looks to Ticonderoga as a model and as a warning.
“I wholeheartedly support renewable energy, but we haven’t figured out where it all fits.“There’s a philosophical question to be asked, how much is too much?”Andrea Hogan, Town of Johnsburg supervisor and APA commissioner
A reason for optimism, she said, is that the solar companies themselves are fast learners and have become adept at speaking the Adirondack language, pledging to plant vegetation that attracts pollinators, install fencing more accommodating to wildlife and, in at least one case, provide room for sheep grazing.
Although they will largely operate out of sight, Wright, Ticonderoga’s supervisor, said he believes they offer the community a bit of a psychological edge—that other innovative industries will see solar as a sign of a progressive, forward thinking community and want to be part of it. “It shows the sun shines brighter in Ticonderoga,” he quipped.