Thinking global, acting local

Despite a new president who has said that climate change is a hoax, and who has also said he would walk away from the Paris Climate Agreement, there are some analysts who have said that the United States may meets its emission targets under that agreement anyway because of the efforts of state and local governments. Some of the recent activity in our own backyard supports that hypothesis.

The spirit of confronting climate change was on full display in the Town of Bethel on January 25, as the town board held a public hearing on the proposed new solar zoning law. Nearly all of the people who spoke were enthusiastic about it, even if one wanted to know if provisions were in place to ensure large solar installations would be properly decommissioned at the end of their life. Supervisor Dan Sturm said, “The abandonment and decommissioning section that has been added to our solar law is state of the art, it’s one of a kind.”

Unlike the towns of Cochecton and Fremont, Bethel board members decided it would not vote to “opt out” of the state-created tax exemption program for solar installations. 

Sturm said, “If I can speak for the Green Committee and the town board when we crafted this law, we felt strongly that to opt out and to assess the solar arrays… [would be a] a clear sign that the town is not doing everything that it can do to encourage solar in our town.” He added, however, that there will be mandatory payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements for large solar installations.

This kind of activity is happening not only in the Town of Bethel. The adoption of similar laws is happening in towns and village all over the state because of programs and initiatives that began in Albany.

Green Committee co-chair Jeffrey Allison, said, “The committee’s goal was to help the town and its residents reduce energy consumption, save money, reduce fossil fuel consumption and reduce our carbon footprint. Participation in both the New York State Climate Smart Communities and the NYSERDA Clean Energy Communities programs will aid the town in these goals, but it will also help the town qualify for and receive grant funding for major energy saving projects.”

Once the Bethel law is passed, the Green Committee will help educate homeowners businesses and farmers in how they can take advantage of various programs to move into solar.

Green Committee co-chair Karen London said the group worked with a model solar law developed by the New York State Planning and Zoning Working Group. She added, however, that the committee gave considerable thought to customizing the law to meet the specific needs of the town.

She said, “While the model law is a mere eight pages, the Bethel law is 19 pages. Also, it specifies a much more stringent review for large-scale, ground-mounted solar, which requires a special-use permit and planning board review.”

Wendy Robinson, another member of the Green Committee, reminded the audience that not too long ago the town voted to ban fracking. She said, “The town board was a little bit unpopular in some corners of town when we passed the ban on fracking… I know that there were some farmers who were unhappy about not being able to use their land, and I think that one of our motivations in passing this law was to help make up for that.”

The proposed law was reviewed by Mark Carper of the Sullivan County Division of Planning and Environmental Management. He called the law “very thoughtful, very progressive,” and said it “addressed a lot of issues with respect to the character of this town.” 

John Reagan, who works for the solar farm developer Cypress Creek Renewables, said of the proposed law, “We think it’s very comprehensive and it’s reasonable… we’ve been tracking solar code development all over the state and this is the best that I’ve seen.”

There was one letter written by a resident who said he did not want to see any solar arrays in the Town of Bethel, but otherwise during this meeting it seemed the process had united the community around a common goal.

This effort was launched in large part because New York State is one of 29 states that have adopted renewable energy goals. This state and many others have made it easier for people and businesses to move into renewable energy, and the Bethel experience is being repeated in communities around the country.

So while President Donald Trump may prefer coal and oil over sunlight and wind, and has said renewable energy is “just an expensive way of making the tree-huggers feel good about themselves,” the way is still open for many communities across the country to continue to move to clean energy. This is one area where local participation will make a difference.


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