power transmission lines

After much deliberation The Lansing Town Board passed a Local Solar and Wind Law last July. The one sticking point that held up final consideration of the law was the matter of how much contiguous prime farm land should be allowed for solar arrays, especially large industrial solar arrays. The law ended up not setting a cap. But around the time it was passed Governor Cuomo declared that local municipalities would not have jurisdiction over siting large solar farms, uncharacteristically overriding home rule to serve his state-wide clean energy goals. Many municipalities that have been scrambling to exert what influence they can over their own boundaries, and Lansing's County Legislator Mike Sigler has been leading a campaign to put conditions on these large solar arrays, including requiring a 1,000 to 1,500 foot buffer between the solar panels and existing homes.

On Wednesday Lansing Director of Planning C.J. Randall told the Town Board that the Planning Board wants to amend the law, and asked whether this is an allocation of resources the Town Board wants. The answer was no.

Sigler's petition calls for "larger setbacks, between 1000 and 1500 feet from homes and roads, wildlife corridors, 20 percent set asides for pollinators, co-location of agriculture on these sites, notification of neighboring landowners, vegetation buffers and berms, and avoidance of active farm land when building these arrays. These power plants will stretch over 1000 to 1500 acres and Lansing is being looked at by more than one solar company for construction. For an idea of scale, that’s between two and three Tompkins County International Airports being built in Lansing, per project."

Prime land for the industrial solar arrays cuts a swarth all the way across the town, because the transmission lines that connected the now closed Cayuga Power Plant are now available to hook other sources of power to the electric grid.

"There are so many things you have to consider," Councilwoman Andra Benson said. "But I go back to the landowners have the right to do what they want with their land unless its zoned very differently. This is the way we've worked for years and years and years. I feel for the neighbors, but I don't think you can take that right away from people if they want to sign with a solar far. But I hate to think that Lansing's going to be just one gigantic solar farm. That bothers me also, but we can't make the decision for somebody else's land."

Benson's family owns a large organic dairy farm, and noted that organic dairies are doing OK, conventional dairy farms are suffering in the current economy. She said that some farmers welcome the chance to lease to industrial solar companies because they need the income to keep their farms and feed their families.

For the Town Board there is also the issue of where to use limited resources, and by that they mean Randall's time.

In 2013 the Lansing Town Board debated the value of hiring a full time planner, had conducted interviews, chosen a candidate, and was on the brink of hiring him. At the last minute they voted 3-2 to hire a part time consultant instead. But Lansing is the fastest growing municipality in Tompkins county, and early in 2019 C.J. Randall was hired to fill the new Director of Planning position.

She hit the ground running dealing with a myriad of issues, advising the Planning and Board and Zoning Board of Appeals, writing grants, working on the development of the Myers Park Master Plan and countless other projects. It has almost become an in-joke that her monthly reports to the Town Board will be long and detailed. Actually she has kept them fairly short most months, but the written report belies that brevity.

"You look at what she's done every month..." Supervisor Ed LaVigne said. "It's a boatload of work!"

Randall noted that in the six months since the Solar and Wind law went into effect only one modest project has been proposed, a small solar system that is under 10,000 square feet. And because the law is barely six months old she asked for direction from the Town Board on whether or not to work on amending the law.

"Without a policy directive from you I am hesitant to encourage them go a lot further with any proposed amendments," she said.
powerline lansing mapThe blue line shows where high power lines run from the old power plant site across the Town of Lansing

LaVigne said that he has reservations about proposed changes, asking if the setbacks are set at the proposed distances will one size fit all.

"Not with the 1000 foot setback," replied Councilman Doug Dake. "A lot of that property isn't 1000 feet wide. They may have 100 acres somewhere, but due to property lines and things of that nature it's impossible to (impost 1000 foot setbacks). So one size does not fit all, in any case. It never did."

"And what if she signed the contract and was all ready to go and what if she got zoned out of it" LaVigne said of one farmland owner whose property is being considered for one of the large projects..

Dake said that such a rule would disqualify some Lansing landowners from the option, including one whose land is being considered for one of the two industrial solar arrays that have been proposed so far. He said that landowners had spoken to him about that concern.

LaVigne said that Randall needs help to get all the work on her desk done. He noted that there is money in the budget to hire someone to help her. He said a part time helper could work with the Power Plant Committee or the Conservation Advisory Council or take over other duties so the Town could best use Randall's expertise, time, and energy.

"If we continue down this path we're going to have to say 'this is a priority... this is page three... this is page four...' otherwise things aren't going to get done," LaVigne said. ". And we'd leave it up to the discretion of C.J. and the rets of them to find out where we are. We have a lot of committees that are still in the infant stage, and they need guidance. Does C.J.'s input save you 90% down the road, and save some embarrassing (unintended consequences)? Somebody has to be at the rudder, and who is better qualified than C.J.?"

He said the Town needs to find somebody who is qualified to take some of the load off of Randall. He noted that now is busier than ever in the Planning / Code Enforcement Office, reporting that Code/Fire Enforcement Officer & Building Inspector told him that there are 260 building permits open.

"That's the most he's ever done," LaVigne said. "He' s cranking them out. So it looks like Lansing is a hot spot, and of course a lot of this has to go across C.J.'s desk. So what are our priorities here?"

"It comes down to what our priorities are," said Dake. "We've got things that have been on the books forever. How long did it take us to get a comprehensive plan passed? -- forever!"