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The draft Solar and Wind Energy Systems amendment to Lansing's zoning ordinance is very close to being complete, but one key element will determine whether it will be feasible for large and medium-scale solar farms to locate in the Town.  The Lansing Town Board debated whether and how much to limit the size of commercial solar farms in the Town after a public hearing on the law.

"I am very concerned about the environment.  I am very concerned about the farmlands.  I am very concerned about the farmers.  I am very concerned about a variety of different things," said LaVigne. "But I'm also very concerned about the Town's tax base.  I propose we do an analysis of what the financial benefit is to the Town of Lansing.  What is the best bang for our buck?  We have to look out for the Town."

Lansing Director of Planning C.J. Randall says the best place to locate a solar farm is within a half mile of the existing power transmission lines that cut across Lansing from the Cayuga Power Plant to the Lansing/Dryden town line.  Much of that area is farmland with prime soil for growing crops.  The debate centered on preserving that prime crop land versus covering it with solar panels.  The issue is complicated by Tompkins County's recommendation to restrict solar farms on prime farmland to 10 acres at the low end, and the possibility New York State may cease control of decision making on solar farms at the high end of more than 125 acres.  As written Lansing's draft law sets no limit on size.

Power Line MapPowerlines cut through the Town of Lansing from the location of the Cayuga Power Plant in the northwest of the Town to the Lansing/Dryden border. The best location for solar farms is within a half mile of the power lines, which is also the location of may farms with prime soil for growing crops

On the one hand, solar array developers don't want a size limit.  CS Energy Project Developer Mitch Quine said that his company would be happy to work with the Town on a large project, saying that landowners have been interested in the possibility of leasing their land for solar in initial discussions.

I think that the law in the current draft form is going to be a very workable law, something we would be very happy to work with the Town to develop a project under," he said. "There is an item of debate around (limiting solar farms to) 10 acres of contiguous farmland.  I'd just like to reiterate our stance that if there were such a limit placed in the law we would be prohibited from developing. We would not proceed to develop in the Town."

But Lansing Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Connie Wilcox warned that permitting large solar arrays on farmland could be a hardship for some farmers.

"The farmers that lease land are losing a lot of their land, because landowners are looking toward leasing to solar projects," she said. "That's a big concern, because they've spent years renting the same farmland and they've put a lot of money into getting that soil up to standard where they can raise their crops."

Farmer Bob Munson said he just wants the right to decide for himself.  

"I'd like to have the opportunity to use my own land for what I want to use it for," he said.

Randall said that Tompkins County Planning and The Tompkins County Farmland Protection Board recommends limiting solar farms on prime farmland to 10 acres.  She said that the Town has three options:
  1. Do Nothing.  The existing land use ordinance includes solar commercial and solar residential as allowed uses.  She said they are not defined, and that should be updated in current law.  That would allow the Planning Board to review commercial projects via site plan review as they have recently done with the Nexamp solar farm on Jerry Smith Road.
  2. Set the acreage limit.  She said 25 acres might be more reasonable than 10 acres because it aligns with current incentives.  She said the County Assessment Department concurs that 25 acres is a 'sweet spot' for incentives and what the Town would receive from PILOT agreements negotiated by the County on the Town's behalf.  She warned that a state siting board Article 10 process might overrule site plans larger than 125 acres (it is pending litigation)
  3. Leave the law as written with no acreage limit.  That would allow substantial projects to locate in Lansing, most of them sited along the existing transmission lines that cut across the Town.
Council members Joe Wetmore and Katrina Binkewicz said they favor a 25 acre limit, at least to start with.  Wetmore said Lansing could always change the law after letting other municipalities navigate costly legal challenges.  Binkewicz said she is concerned about having many 25 acre installations in the town because it could have a negative effect similar to very large arrays on prime soil farmland.  And Wetmore said he is concerned that farmland is not realistically returned to prime soil condition after industrial uses conclude.

"I'd like to see us put a 25 limit, because I do want to see these small systems, and I understand 10 acres is too small to get them," Wetmore said. "But if we put a 25 acre limit in our zoning ordinance we make a strong statement saying 'you have to get a variance in order to change this.  You can't just go to the Planning Board and have them change it.  It makes a statement to the State that we don't want these large ones right now. In the future we might."

LaVigne said that as the technology improves the Board can revisit the issue, noting that if solar farms can produce more energy on less acreage it would change the way solar farms impact the Town and farmland.

"To go about this in a pragmatic way, I think, is a good way," LaVigne said. "I'm in no rush to get this thing done, because at the end of the day I want to be able to balance the benefits and the risks.  In the future we can open a public hearing again.  The more input, the better it is for everyone."

Wetmore disagreed, saying that passing a law would hold back large solar farms that are currently allowed until more is known.  He said the Town doesn't have the ability to say no.  But LaVigne countered that the Planning Board already does have the ability to say no.

Randall agreed with LaVigne, noting that if the Board chooses option one or delays passing the law, the County would likely recommend 10 acres for every proposal, forcing the Planning Board to support projects larger than that with a super-majority (six of seven votes) when they vote on whether approve each individual site plan.

"In some ways we're in a good spot," Randall said. "We have the flexibility because of the way our current zoning is written. We also have a great town attorney who can help us work through some of these issues and help us understand the impact of that litigation, which is shaking out in the court system as we speak.  We can keep working on the draft, do the financial analysis, work with County Assessment to try to get a better handle on the retail scale facilities and what they would mean to the Town, especially in light of the power plant closing."

The board will likely continue the discussion at its October meeting.

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