State Bureaucrats at the Gates, by Ronald Fraser
In a July 25, 2020 Buffalo News article Jeff Dewart, Wright Ellis and Jim Simon, elected supervisors in the New York towns of Somerset, Cambria and Yates, expressed alarm over an authority tug-of-war pitting the towns use of “Not in my backyard” polices to control land use against the state’s new-found authority to decide where large scale wind and solar farms will be sited with or without a town’s approval.
They wrote, “[L]ocal governments in upstate and rural New York are now at the mercy of a new state agency, controlled by the governor, to decide which industrial wind and solar projects will be sited in their municipalities. Local laws to protect public health, environment, property values, recreation and tourism, etc., are swept aside in favor of the governor’s agenda.”
Readers might easily conclude that Governor Andrew Cuomo is ready to brush aside local officials in the towns bearing “the brunt of these ill-conceived projects” just as Robert Moses, in the 1940s and 1950s, gladly ejected half-million New Yorkers from their homes to make room for his expressways and parks.
What is really going on here?
On April 3, 2020 a New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) press release provides a roadmap for how the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act, signed into law by Governor Cuomo on that date, might be implemented.
o “The Office of Renewable Energy Siting…will consolidate the environmental review of major renewable energy facilities and provide a single forum to ensure that siting decisions are predictable, reasonable and delivered in a timely manner…establish regulations and uniform standards that encompass the environmental impacts common to large, renewable energy projects…”
o “The Siting Office will seek public comments during the initial development of uniform standards…for each project, municipalities and community intervenors will have access, as appropriate, to funds that will assist them in reviewing the project and aid them in providing comments to advise the Siting Office on the project’s compliance with local laws with respect to the environment, public health and safety.”
o Renewable energy projects larger than 25 megawatts will be required to seek an approved permit through the Siting Office for new construction or expansion.
o To ensure these projects benefit local communities where they are built, “the Act establishes…a Host Community Benefit Program…[that]…will offer property owners and communities tangible benefits and incentives for hosting renewable energy facilities.”
o “In order for communities to participate in the new siting process, NYSERDA will administer a local intervenor fund for the benefit of local agencies and community intervenors.”
How well this roadmap unfolds in the months ahead—especially as the governor pushes his ambitious timetable to produce 70% of the state’s electric power from non-fossil fuels by 2030—is anyone’s guess.
During the 19th century horse and buggy era, towns were created by the state to provide a simple governmental presence close to the people. Today the state’s geography is fragmented with the existence of 932 independent town governments, each with “home rule” powers to act by local law with respect to their property, affairs and government.
These towns, however, are not separate, sovereign governments, but parts of the larger state government.
As I see it, geography dictates a top-down approach. The state’s renewable program is not a raid on town authority, but a legitimate attempt to put in place a massive program to achieve a worthwhile public purpose. At least on paper, town governments are not being ejected from the state’s wind and solar siting process, they have been invited in.
Moving from a fossil fuel energy-based economy to a renewable energy-based economy will involve, geographically, a wide swath of the state. Locating and developing dozens of feasible wind and solar sites and building new power transmission facilities, will require a centralized, state-wide, coordinating authority.
This task is simply beyond the scope of town governments. Towns are organized and empowered to deal with the siting of local-serving facilities, not the coordinated management of a geographically wide-ranging, state-serving project. To go with a bottom-up approach, where the state depended on the voluntary actions of dozens of independent town governments to reach the state’s energy transition goals, would be administrative malpractice.
NYSERDA’s initial blueprint provides ample opportunities for town officials to take part in the state-run siting process. Will town supervisors sulk over their loss of control or will they do what they were elected to do—to aggressively represent the interests of their towns in this public drama?