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Cuomo power site plan sparks controversy

ALBANY — Advocates for local governments are pushing back against a Cuomo administration plan to speed up the siting process for renewable-energy generating plants.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday he is amending his state budget proposal by adding a measure that would set up a state bureaucracy to handle the permitting process for wind and solar developments.

Lawmakers had already completed hearings examining the state spending plan by the time they were presented with the details of how Cuomo wants to put those green energy projects on the regulatory fast track.

Several proposed wind projects have ignited passionate opposition from upstate towns and their residents. The resistance, in some instances, has threatened the viability of the projects and increased costs for developers.

But supporters of local scrutiny say such projects shouldn’t be forced into communities that object to them, and they fear Cuomo’s plan could alter the character of towns that want to have a say in the siting of proposed industrial-scale power generating stations.

“Risen to the occasion”

Cuomo has outlined the plan in a way that suggests it is crucial to help the state reach its goal of curtailing reliance on fossil fuels and reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. The governor would install a new Office of Renewable Energy Permitting within the Empire State Development authority to deal with applications for industrial wind and solar projects.

“Climate change is the existential challenge of our time, and New York state has risen to the occasion by enacting the strongest laws in the nation to protect and preserve our environment,” Cuomo said.

But critics say that streamlining approvals for green energy shouldn’t result in towns and counties being effectively muzzled over the plants being eyed for their jurisdictions.

“This is bad policy for my district, and it is bad energy policy,” said state Sen. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda) “But it also eviscerates home rule and local input, and that should concern every county executive, every mayor and every supervisor regardless of political party.”

New York has set a target of getting 70 percent of its energy from green sources by 2030. To reach that goal, the state will have to greatly expand the current output of power generated from wind turbines and solar arrays.

“We are thrilled”

An industry group for renewable power companies, the Alliance for Clean Energy New York, applauded Cuomo’s plan.

“We are thrilled by this proposal to expedite renewable energy and its economic benefits,” the group’s director, Anne Reynolds, said in a statement.

Rural areas often end up as the proposed sites for wind turbines and solar farms because of the availability of land, communities are more sparsely settled than urban regions and real estate is relatively cheap.

Gerry Geist, director of the state Association of Towns, said the timing of the proposal’s release, just weeks before the state budget has to be finalized, prevents municipal governments from weighing in on the plan at the statehouse.

Geist also suggested the reasoning for the proposal remains vague.

“We think you ought to make the case if you’re going to go in that direction,” said Geist, noting the proposal empowers the state to supersede the zoning laws enacted by local governments.

Home-rule traditions

Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, said he would vote against the proposal if it advances as part of the budget.

“This proposal runs roughshod over local residents and local governments,” Seward said. The plan, he noted, would require that comments that express general opposition to a project not be considered during the siting process as part of the effort to speed up the reviews.

Setback requirements enacted by some local governments to buffer projects from nearby parcels could also be overridden by the state, Seward said.

“That runs contrary to our home-rule traditions in New York state,” Seward said. The proposal also jeopardizes the ability of county industrial development authorities to generate revenue for local governments by setting up payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements with developers, he said.

“The state would be in control of everything,” he said.

“I’m outraged”

Grassroots community groups in several regions of New York have organized to voice their concerns about wind turbines planned for their communities.

Kate Kremer, vice president of one such group, Save Ontario Shores, said, “Rushing something through without giving people an opportunity to comment is not the way to solve complicated problems.

Kremer said the proposal amounts to a “huge power grab” by Cuomo.

“It is removing home rule.” she said. “It would be devastating for rural communities. And I’m outraged he would even think of doing this.”

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Joe Mahoney covers the New York statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers, including the Press-Republican of Plattsburgh, which shares content with the Enterprise.

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