Farmers make case for Sharon solar project


By Patsy Nicosia

East Point Energy’s plans to put a 350-acre solar project on land owned by dairy farmer Jim Sherman could make the difference between his farm being there for the next generation.
Or not.
That’s what Mr. Sherman told the state Public Service Commission’s Siting Board in two online hearings of the proposed 50-megawattt Article 10 project Thursday.
Fewer than a dozen people called in to offer testimony; both the 1pm and 6pm hearings were closed after about a half hour.
Mr. Sherman and his son-in-law, William Sinatra, both called in several times to support the project.
“I don’t think people understand how hard farmers work,” Mr. Sinatra said.
“I think people take it for granted that they can just walk to the store for a gallon or milk or a steak without considering the sacrifices farmers make.”
A Town of Sharon farmer for 32 years, Mr. Sherman said he’s never been presented with an opportunity that could have as profound an impact on his ability to keep farming.
“We should have the right to develop and manage our land as we choose,” he said.
“I trust they will take good care of our land and we’ll be there to help them. I believe this decision is best for my family.”
Mr. Sherman said NextEra will pay “millions of dollars in new tax revenues to the town.”
However the company has refused to negotiate for a PILOT—payment in lieu of taxes—and local leaders are afraid changes in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Green New Deal could also mean the project won’t be taxed at the going rate.
Neighbor Michael Whaling expressed concern over runoff and weed killers contaminating his ponds; Mr. Sherman called back in to point out he’s probably using more herbicides now growing soybeans and corn.
Don Airey, chair of Schoharie County’s energy Committee, said it’s important to look at the bigger picture.
The project will be taking valuable agricultural land out of production, he said, even as NextEra has “failed to negotiate a fair and equitable PILOT agreement.”
“This needs to be a partnership,” he said, “We are simply being held hostage to the whims of an Article 10 developer.”
The Town of Sharon drafted its own solar law several years before the NextEra project, which would be build on land owned by the Shermans off Route 20 at Sharon Hill and along Gilbert’s Corners Road on land owned by High Hill Farm, was proposed.
Because of its size, however, the NextEra project is subject to state and not local approval.
“I ask the state to allow home rule,” Mr. Airey said. “So we can decide on our own what’s right for our communities.”
Mr. Airey also pointed out that NextEra has balked at the PILOT the smaller Birdseye Solar Project, also off Route 20, is paying of $3,500 per megawatt.
“That sounds like a lot of tax revenue to me,” Mr. Sherman said. “To me, $175,000 is a lot of money for a PILOT.”
High Hill Farms called in its support for the project at the 6pm hearing—but neighbors John Papp and Dale Whelan questioned its impact on their property values.
“This is my retirement home,” Mr. Papp said. “Now I hear you’re trying to place a solar farm literally in my back yard. I am totally, 100 percent against this project.”
Catherine Kemp of Whiteman Hanna & Osterman, the law firm representing the Town of Sharon Sharon, said Next Era has “blatantly” refused to avoid prime farm land, refused additional screening, and refused to accept a PILOT consistent with the only other solar project in the town [Birdseye Solar.]
If offers virtually no benefit to the local community, Ms. Kemp said, and would be a visible blight.
Comments will be taken on the project until December 31; a decision is expected in January.