TOWN OF LOCKPORT — There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Karl Kowalski, a local dairy farmer in the town, stepped up to explain himself to his neighbors at an informational meeting regarding a solar farm at the property.
“Can I just say something? From the start, we’ve been looking at solar for three years,” Kowalski told the crowd. “I knew that it was going to affect the neighborhood, but I have to be concerned about my life and my family and my future. As a small farmer, it is so hard to make a living and this was an avenue that we thought would work, so that’s why we investigated and started with it.”
“We had no idea when it would go through,” he continued. “And that’s one of the reasons why you didn’t know. But we want you to know that we aren’t doing anything to spite anybody. We’re trying to keep our farm and be able to afford it, because taxes and assessments and builds and electricity, as a small farm you can’t generate enough to pay that.
“For three years we’ve run at a loss, not for lack of trying.”
The meeting, hosted by Renewable Properties regarding the 45-acre solar energy site it is looking to build on his property, had started an hour before Kowalski, seated in the audience of about 50 people, chose to speak. It had led with a brief presentation conducted by Brian Madigan, project manager for the solar energy group. After the presentation, the floor was opened to questions from the community.
Points included questions on environmental concerns. How the project would affect the water in the area. What was inside the panels. Madigan answered the questions and other members of his team also helped explain that the town was responsible to investigate environmental impacts, as well as to take into account what the company has done to mitigate those impacts.
Other questions on decommissioning of the project in 35 years and how it could be ensured were also front and center.
“Forty-five years ago my dad was packing pipes full of asbestos,” James Phippi, a resident said. “The minute you have an environmental hazard or something comes up, then our concern is that you guys will say, ‘This costs $800,000, we only have a $400,000 bond, we’re out of here.’ “
Jim Shultz, a Lockport resident who has been investigating and writing on solar energy, was also at the meeting.
“What’s the size of your project, how much is coming to you in federal and state subsidies, and most importantly, is your arrangement with the town to pay a full property tax rate on the value of your property?” Shultz asked. “Or are you looking to get a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) with the county to get a big reduction on your taxes?”
Madigan said that Renewable Properties is pursuing a PILOT agreement with the town’s Industrial Development Agency, but have “only started those conversations.”
Outside the Wright’s Fire Company Hall on Lake Road, members of Protect Our Rural Communities (PORC) held signs and marched along the parking lot in protest of the project.
“It’s in the wrong place at this time. We are not against solar, and we’d like it located elsewhere. Not near the park, the families, and the farming community,” said Barbara Outten, a spokesperson for the group, “It’s going to change our cultural community and the residential community. It will just change the cultural fabric, the neighborhoods. It’ll take the farm land out of production. We do not want Governor Cuomo to overrun us.”
Outten said she fears the planning board for the Town of Lockport will ignore the voices of neighbors of the Slayton Settlement project and vote to allow Renewable Properties to develop the site for what it calls, “Community solar.” To that effect, she drafted a letter to the Town Board of Lockport and the planning board asking them to tour the neighborhood and see things from, literally, their point of view.
As of yet, no board member has contacted her.
“One message, one voice, our community, our choice,” Outten said, echoing the sentiment printed on a giant banner the protesters marched around.
As people began to file off the property, some residents who’d argued vehemently for their side against the project, gathered around the Kowlaski’s to talk as neighbors.
Kowalski owns and operates Maverick Farm, where Renewable Properties is seeking a special use permit and site approval to build a 7-megawatt solar generating facility. The acreage is between Day, Slayton Settlement, Harrington and Canal roads.
As Kowalski had said, “This is not excuses, I just want to try to explain why we did this and I understand your feelings and I understand your concerns. It’s hard for us, too.”