The Bedford Planning Board met via Zoom on Monday, April 6, with a variety of items on the agenda. After a long hiatus, plans for a new welcome center at Harvey School were back before the board, along with a proposed town code amendment regarding solar farms.
Solar farm amendment
The board held a conference session to discuss a proposed amendment to the town code. The town board had asked the planning board for a recommendation as to whether the town should pass a general code controlling and allowing the building of solar farms throughout the Town of Bedford.
Green Street Partners, owner of property at 1 Baldwin Road, across Route 172 from the Fox Lane campus, which has an application before the board to erect a solar farm on that site, requested the amendment. Craig Dwyer spoke for the applicant and explained the reason for their petition to change the code.
Mr. Dwyer said Green Street has been seeking to develop a 5-megawatt, ground-mounted solar system on the site for the better part of two years. He said the town code currently only refers to a “solar energy collector,” which is language that usually describes equipment designed for energy use on-site for a residence.
The nomenclature used throughout most of the rest of the state and Westchester, he said, refers to Tier 1, 2 and 3 systems. Tier 1 refers to a residence, with a rooftop solar array; Tier 2 is anything less than 25 kilowatts, or about 1500 square feet; and Tier 3 is the catch-all for ground-mounted community solar projects, which is the category under which he said Green Street would apply.
Board member Diane Lewis repeated her position from previous meetings, opposing the use of open space for solar arrays. “I feel really strongly that solar arrays should be placed on impervious surfaces, such as rooftops and parking areas, within office parks or on highway medians,” she said. Cutting down trees, meadows and grasslands, and destroying habitat for species that are struggling due to climate change are deeply harmful practices, she argued. Once in place, resulting infrastructure can remain for 20 to 30 years, magnifying the consequences, she said, and destroying habitat that is irreplaceable. She also pointed out that Massachusetts Audubon had initially supported solar arrays but had changed its view to support them only on impervious surfaces.
Mr. Dwyer asked that she include her comments in the board’s letter to the town board.
Chair Deirdre Courtney-Batson expressed concern that could be an over-reliance on special permit applications to seek exceptions to the town’s zoning laws. “Sometimes we concentrate too much on zoning issues and forget about land use issues,” she added. Ms. Lewis said she thought it was crucial to residents that residential zoning is protected.
Mr. Dwyer responded by saying, “We are not here tonight for a spot zoning request, we’re not here for a site plan review,” he said. “We’re here for a letter of support and recommendation back to the town board for our petition. We have some deadlines coming up, some of them in summer 2021, and we’re going to have our hands tied here if we don’t hit an inflection point on this project.”
Board members Michael Tierney and Tom Catoliato agreed that the points Ms. Lewis made should be included, and Mr. Tierney said it was important to include the housing aspects as well as solar.
Ms. Courtney-Batson noted that under current utility regulations, solar projects in New York State Electric and Gas territory can only sell their energy to NYSEG, which makes locating the arrays on the town’s parking lots financially unfeasible. She said she wanted the board letter to include this constraint as well.
“I think we have a responsibility to push our elected officials at the higher level to change our disincentives for this kind of thing,” said Ms. Courtney-Batson. “I see no rationale for saying that you shouldn’t be able to build solar on a commuter parking lot in Katonah and not sell that electricity to ConEd, if ConEd is the more reasonable market to sell it to.”
Mr. Dwyer said that was one area on which they agreed.
Mr. Dwyer offered reassurances that even if there were a special permit process in place for solar projects, a poorly-sited proposal would face massive resistance from the community and the planning board, so such a process will not “open the floodgates.”
Ms. Courtney-Batson said she thought there was a consensus that board members were not inclined to recommend the zoning law change to the town board, and recounted all the points they had made. The board voted to ask Director of Planning Jeff Osterman to help write a letter recommending against the change in zoning. She said the letter would be written without prejudice toward the specific Green Street application.
Harvey School proposal
The Harvey School returned after a break of many months to have the board consider a proposed welcome center encompassing the historic Weil House and barn complex on Jay Street in Katonah.
William Knauer, Harvey’s head of school, reviewed the reasons for the proposal, including the need for a gateway to the campus and more classroom space, as well as increased security at schools in general. He discussed changes to the plan that had been made as part of reviews by other boards.
Major previous concerns involved construction of a parking area within the wetlands buffer and the impact on an immediate neighbor.
Attorney Michael Sirignano returned to express numerous objections by the neighbor. His main point was that although the school has a 93-acre campus, the proposal concentrates construction, parking and activities in a small area close to neighboring residential properties. He asked for an environmental impact statement and requested that he be allowed to participate in a site walk.
Dan Hollis, the attorney for Harvey, rebutted Mr. Sirignano’s assertions, saying there was no reason for an EIS and rejecting opening up the site walk to non-board members or their representatives and the property owner. He stated he had already answered the attorney’s objections before other boards, which had given their approvals.
Before considering preliminary site plan approval, the board wanted to conduct a site walk. Ms. Courtney-Batson requested that the walk be scheduled as soon as possible before leaves on the trees obscured views. The board and the applicants selected several possible days for the site walk, beginning today, Friday; the final date was dependent on the weather.