Council rejects rezoning for solar farm

GLOVERSVILLE — The Common Council has unanimously rejected a request by solar developers to rezone portions of the former Pine Brook Golf Club property from residential to commercial to allow construction of a community solar farm at the center of the site. The rejection will not kill the project outright as developers may still apply to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a variance.

The Common Council on Tuesday finally issued a decision on the request by solar developers, Eden Renewables, to rezone from residential to commercial three subdivided parcels from the former Pine Brook Golf Club at 280 S. Main St.

The Planning Board in October approved a subdivision of the 155-acre Pine Brook Golf Club at 280 S. Main St. by a 3-2 vote. That resulted in the creation of a 57-acre lot at the center of the property, a 2-acre parcel encompassing the area surrounding the former clubhouse building, a 1.46-acre parcel to be combined with the neighboring Antonucci Foods property at 274 S. Main St. and a 91-acre parcel running along the perimeter of the property.

Solar developers Eden Renewables subsequently submitted a petition to the Common Council requesting a change of zoning from residential to commercial for the three smallest subdivided parcels.

The zoning change is required to allow the developers to pursue plans to construct a community solar project on the 57-acre parcel at the center of the former golf club. Solar farms are not an allowed use in an R1 residential zone according to city code but are allowed in a commercial zone subject to a special permit.

The Common Council heard plans for the solar project from developers during the Oct. 27 meeting and opened a public hearing on the request for rezoning that remained open through the Nov. 24 meeting.

The solar array would span roughly 35 acres at the core of the 57-acre lot with a gap of 15 to 20 feet between each row of the approximately eight and a half feet tall axis tracker solar panel modules that follow the path of the sun throughout the day. The solar array would have a capacity of approximately 7.5 MWp and would be capable of powering about 1,225 homes.

The community solar project would offer residents an opportunity to subscribe to the power generated by the array to receive a discount of roughly 10 to 15 percent off their monthly electricity bills. Project plans call for the construction of public features around the array including a walking trail with passive fitness areas and educational stations, a community garden, a fruit tree orchard and electric vehicle chargers at a parking lot along South Main Street.

Project developers and engineers conducted a detailed visual analysis of the site using aerial photography that concluded there would be little to no visual impact from the project based on existing topography and vegetation. The solar array would be visible from homes on Lexington Avenue, but project representatives have stated they would work with property owners to develop and install screening measures at Eden’s expense.

Before rendering a decision on the request for rezoning, the Common Council was required to request recommendations on the proposed action from both the Gloversville and Fulton County Planning Boards. The Gloversville Planning Board this month recommended the property be rezoned by a split 3-2 vote while the Fulton County Planning Board ultimately refrained from issuing any recommendation after discussing the request.

Mayor Vincent DeSantis on Tuesday opened the floor to the council members to motion to either approve or reject the request with 6th Ward Councilman Wrandy Siarkowski motioning to reject the request which was quickly seconded by 2nd Ward Councilman Arthur Simonds.

Before voting on the motion the council members discussed the request, expressing concerns about locating a solar farm with an anticipated useful life of 40 years on an otherwise useful piece of property within the city.

“When we did our comprehensive plan in 2015, we realized that we had very little land,” said 4th Ward Councilwoman Ellen Anadio. “We wanted to encourage mixed-use residential structures, apartment complexes and assisted living for seniors due to our population, so that was our plan, and we need the land.”

“It’s one of the very few pristine pieces of property in this whole area and to tie it up with a solar farm for 40 years, I think it would be a big misjustice to Gloversville,” agreed Simonds.

Eden representatives have in the past pointed to the idea of the property as “pristine” as a misconception given the common use of chemicals to maintain golf course grounds. The solar developers have additionally noted that their project includes a decommissioning plan for the solar array following the end of its useful life that would see all equipment removed from the site for recycling and new solar technology installed or the property returned to its current unoccupied status.

Eden and the current property owners have also pointed to the solar project as the best option for the site that has sat for vacant for years following the closure of the golf course without any interest from developers to repurpose the land.

While plans by the current property owners in 2015 to build condominiums on the site never came to fruition, Simonds and the other council members noted that the city now has developers interested in building new homes and residential structures in the city which is also experiencing a huge increase in sales of existing homes.

“We have opportunities now to build homes, we have people who want to build and with the COVID virus, people moving into this area, buying our homes. I think it would be a big mistake to do anything other than to have that property available,” said Simonds.

The city is currently working with the state Division of Homes and Community Renewal to pilot an affordable housing program that would see new single-family homes constructed for purchase by income qualified first-time home buyers. HCR officials identified the city as the ideal location to pilot the program and the city is currently taking the necessary steps to prepare for the pilot program.

The state is working on the program with Project Etopia, a British company focused on building affordable homes with energy efficient technologies. Etopia is expected to eventually construct the first home under the project in the city at its own expense as a proof of concept. If the project is successful, the program could eventually be extended within the city and throughout the state.

First Ward Councilwoman Marcia Weiss pointed out that new housing stock in the city is needed as home sales in the city have skyrocketed amidst the coronavirus pandemic with just 28 single-family homes available for sale as of Tuesday and eight of those buildings already under contract.

“This is valuable property that should be kept for the development of housing,” said Weiss.

Third Ward Councilwoman Elizabeth “Betsy” Batchelor additionally noted that the city supports green solutions where appropriate, pointing to the solar farm constructed on the city’s capped former landfill as more suitable for a solar array.

“I have not heard one favorable thing from anyone who lives in that area,” added Siarkowski of Eden’s proposal.

Following the discussion, the Common Council voted unanimously to reject the request to rezone the former Pine Brook Golf Club parcels from residential to commercial.

The city’s decision still leaves one final option open to Eden to pursue the project by applying to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a variance from city zoning regulations to allow the construction of the solar project on the residential property.

By Jim Ellis