Local official doesn’t want prime farmland lost to renewable energy projects

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 2 February 2021 at 9:38 am

Photo by Tom Rivers: Contractors put in the racking system for a solar project at Beals Road by Route 31 in Ridgeway on Oct. 12, 2019. Borrego Solar Systems also built a solar array on Allis Road. The projects are on 16.5 acres on Beals Road and 29 acres on Allis Road, land owned by Ken Baker, a local livestock farmer.

ALBION – Many of the towns in Orleans County are being eyed for renewable energy projects, especially solar projects.

The smaller-scale solar typically take up 20 to 50 acres. But one project in Barre and Shelby would need 1,300 acres.

Utility-size wind energy projects in Barre and Yates would also consume some farmland for turbines, and perhaps for access roads and other infrastructure for the projects.

The solar projects, however, are more plentiful locally and would take up more land.

Matt Passarell, an Albion town councilman, told Orleans County Planning Board members he doesn’t want the county to lose prime farmland to the projects. Agriculture is the county’s top industry, and Passarell said the community leaders need to work with state and federal officials to make sure agriculture stays a powerful economic driver in the county. Albion is among the towns being considered for solar projects.

Jim Bensley, the county’s director of Planning and Development, said there is concern from planning officials in other rural areas in Western New York that farmland could be lost due to the energy projects.

Orleans County could see more big solar projects which could put some of the prime farmland at risk.

Jim Panek of Panek Farms was on the agenda last Thursday for a solar project in Lyndonville. That 340-kilowatt solar energy system is at Lynwood Drive along the right-of-way for the former Hojack railroad line on land that isn’t good farmland.

Panek also has solar arrays on Eagle Harbor Road in Albion at a former harness racing training track, which also was;t good for crops.

He said he gets three or four letters a week from solar companies looking to do projects. He would only consider them on marginal farmland.

“We aren’t going to take our prime farmland away to do a solar farm,” he told the Planning Board.

The energy companies want land that is close to transmission lines. Farmers have tried to steer companies to land without drainage tile or that isn’t very productive.

If more renewable energy projects are in the future, some of the more fertile soil could be targeted for the projects.

Bruce Kirby, a retired fruit grower on Densmore Road in Gaines, is a member of the County Planning Board. He said his farm twice was approached for solar projects, which didn’t become a reality.

He said the revenue from those projects can provide critical funding to keep farms, especially smaller operations, in business.

He also said the projects don’t change the land forever. The soil could be farmed when the solar panels or turbines are removed.

“It’s not permanent,” Kirby said. “We’re not destroying the ag resource you have in this county. Ask around and see how much people are making in farming. These projects provide secondary money to help farms.”