A plan by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to fast-track renewable energy projects statewide by toppling approval barriers is getting the thumbs-down from Long Island officials concerned that the measure will exclude local governments from siting and approval of projects such as solar farms.
Cuomo’s administration has been working on a 30-day amendment to his fiscal 2020-21 budget that would change the "Article X" process for siting power plants.
The bill would create an Office of Renewable Energy Permitting to review and issue permits for new green-energy projects. The move would “ensure permitting decisions are predictable, responsible and delivered on pace to help the state” achieve its goals of a carbon-free grid by 2040.
According to a news release from Cuomo’s office, municipalities would “have an opportunity to advise the office on compliance with local laws.” The permitting office “will consider and may apply local laws” in reviewing approvals, according to the release.
That would be a far cry from the role municipalities such as Riverhead and Brookhaven towns have played in deciding about the placement of solar farms — for instance, when concerns have been raised about clearing trees and the use of farmland.
The bill would apply to projects of 25 megawatts or more, but would allow projects of 10 megawatts and above to opt-in to the new process. If action isn’t taken on a project’s request for a permit within a year, it would be approved automatically.
"This proposal will undermine the powers of local government and it's a mistake," said Ed Romaine, Brookhaven supervisor. "I would urge the governor and the [state] Legislature to think very carefully before they go down this road … I'm a supporter of solar but this is a mistake."
Southampton Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said he shares Cuomo’s goal of moving to a no-carbon energy grid, but “anything that’s exempt from zoning can create a problem locally.”
Schneiderman said towns such as Southampton do a “pretty good job” of approving responsible projects.
“We have tougher laws than New York State” in terms of requiring green building practices, he said. “It’s something we very much believe in.”
Schneiderman continued, “When you don’t have local control you end up with haphazard development.”
Scott Russell, the Southold supervisor, said the town was reviewing the state proposal and “we would need to know more about impacts” on farmland.
“Currently, solar arrays are not a permitted principal use on most farmland and that would require a considerable discussion whether we would be willing to change the code or not,” Russell said. “We will not surrender home rule under any circumstances and I would hope to avoid any conflicts with New York State, legal or otherwise.”
The leader of Riverhead Town, a nexus for commercial solar projects, expressed particular concern about the law.
“I’m vehemently opposed to state legislation that would reduce our ability to self-regulate our landscapes and vistas, especially when utilizing large scale renewable energy projects such as wind and solar power that have permanent landscape altering affects,” said Supervisor Yvette Aguiar.
“I’m very uncomfortable with lawmakers in Albany electing to override or ignore local zoning codes, especially those living outside the Town of Riverhead boundaries,” Aguiar said.
On Feb. 28, 20 environmental and labor groups, including Renewable Energy Long Island and the Sierra Club, wrote to legislative leaders in support of state green-energy siting measures such as Cuomo's.
The groups "strongly urge[d] the legislature to work with the governor to refine and improve upon the proposed legislation so that this issue can be addressed and included in the state budget this year."
A state official familiar with the governor’s proposal said the state’s aim is to avoid development conflicts. The measure presumes the projects are favored by the communities.
“This process is intended very much to continue to take input from localities,” said the official. “They have a very obvious role in the process as it is envisioned.”
The official said Cuomo's proposal is intended primarily for projects over 25 megawatts, which would exclude nearly all projects currently scheduled for Long Island.
Local governments and community members would be able to submit data to the state permitting office “throughout the process” to make certain local codes and priorities are taken into account.
“The state is going to establish the rules of the road to enter this process," including “rigorous environmental and community protections,” the official said.
Peter Baynes, executive director of the New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials, said the group has “strong concerns primarily about the reduction in the amount of local input in the process” in Cuomo's bill.
“We certainly understand the importance of expanding renewables in New York but it can’t be done at the expense of local communities,” Baynes said.
Baynes also expressed concern about the bill's introduction during the 30-day amendment process, which he said is typically reserved for “technical types of clarifications.”
He continued, “This is clearly a very significant proposal with far-reaching impacts and it was thrown in the process midstream.” he said. " … Our hope is it does not pass."