By Edie Johnson
Community Solar continues to grow in popularity as people tighten their financial belts and try to cut costs. Whether it’s a stand alone system, a rooftop display, or membership in a community solar group, it definitely offers the opportunity to cut monthly electric costs, and as a more healthy environmental alternative than oil, especially if the homeowner doesn’t go on an electric use spree when they receive their vastly lower monthly Orange & Rockland bill. It might be as low as half or more of what they would otherwise spend on heat, air conditioning, lights, pool heating and other electric use (especially if they use electric for a significant portion of their heat). But do we have to trade our beautiful views for this benefit?
This week Blooming Grove’s Town Board discussed a request from Orange & Rockland, which has been constructing a large community solar array off the eastern stretch of Round Hill Road, for either a zoning change or Special Use Permit that would expand their substation on the Western end of Round Hill Road, in order to be able to handle the extra electricity that the solar array will create. They will bring a temporary mobile substation that can assist in the process. But the long term plan is an expansion including the adjacent property, which they would purchase for the purpose. The existing substation is already a non-conforming use according to code. Town attorney Brian Nugent said that as an existing non-conforming use it can expand within that site as long as it stays on the parcel. But expanding to adjacent property would require either a Special Permit or Zoning change to the town’s “NNI” (non-nuisance industrial). He was asked to write a letter of opinion on the matter. This particular application includes only 3 additional transformer poles….but that’s just ‘for now’.
Two issues could complicate the process, both at this site and in the many other community solar arrays popping up throughout the county. In an area that is surrounded by significant unused acreage the substation has little impact on the environment or neighbors. But if an NNI variance is granted it could open the door and set a precedent to requests for NNI variances on the additional adjacent vacant properties, much of them om wooded and scenic areas including some protected views and a scenic byways, surroundings similar to many other substations that were put in “out of the way” spots.
The other issue is therefore the potential impact on important scenic views. A view is no longer scenic if it has dozens of telephone poles crossing it and with wires from each to the other. The views that have brought painters and photographers to the area for over a century will be gone in another decade if the ever-increasing need for electric power and provision of more and more solar forever harms the beauty of the area’s scenic views. unless the utility companies either stand up and do the right thing by offering to bury poles and connections in sensitive environmental areas, or the utility regulators require them to. Some states, including Alaska with its vast areas of parkland, require all of the utility lines to be buried in those sensitive areas. Municipalities are very limited in control over the public’s wish to have lines buried. If Alaska can do it, why can’t we? It will take a concerted effort and ongoing pressure by the public at the state level to get it done, especially since all power companies usually need to do to get approval for expansion is go to the state regulating authority and “show a need for it”. Blooming Grove still has 3 very special views…the ‘jewels’ that many people come to town because of (the Moodna Trestle, the Woodcock Mountain View, Round Hill Overlook, and 4 spectacular sites of historic farmland)…can we afford to lose any of them? What will Orange & Rockland do over the next 10 years to make this added electricity available, without destroying the nature of the land, especially since they are reaping big financial benefits from delivering this solar generated power?
(Note: The author, Editor Edie Johnson, lives on this stretch of Round Hill Road)