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Another Voice: Wheatfield is smoothing the way for solar power

By Larry Beahan

Sunshine is the new crop that is being harvested in Wheatfield.

Recently a contingent of us from the Sierra Club Niagara Group attended a meeting of the Wheatfield Town Board.

We had reviewed the draft solar panel law that was to be considered. It was a good law intended to reap the energy benefit of non-polluting, free and plentiful sunshine while protecting the character and natural beauty of the town, but it lacked two important elements.

During a six-month moratorium on ground-mounted and solar farm installations, a hardworking citizens committee teamed up with Wendel Consultants to write this draft. At the meeting a representative from Wendel went over modifications to the draft based on a stack of comments sent in by town residents.

Sierra had come to the meeting prepared to argue hard for those two important omissions: a provision to allow solar farms to be large enough to make them practical and another that would allow homeowners with rooftop solar panels to sell their unused electric energy into the statewide grid.
To our surprise, these two provisions, key to making solar energy available and making it a cash crop, were already included in the new version. We were pleased but it pretty well flattened the tires of our prepared speeches.

Sierrans are rarely at a total loss for words. We got up and justly praised the course the town was preparing to follow, and found a few enhancements:

1.) Consider a tax break for those willing to invest in solar energy because they are contributing to clean community  air and are helping with the global warming fight.

2.) Ask the Wheatfield town attorney to prepare a packet of information to protect landowners from the kind of predatory leasing barrage that followed the fracking boom in Pennsylvania.

3.) Take a look at the Town of Grand Island’s solar panel law, another well-executed piece of local solar legislation.

One board member commented: “People affected by pipelines get a tax break.” The chairman was ahead of us all, on that. He pointed out that state law requires that solar panel improvements not increase the assessed valuation of property for taxes, unless the town opts out.

Both the Wheatfield and Grand Island laws steer solar panel farms away from wetlands, prime agricultural lands, flood plains and culturally significant places. They give the town boards broad powers to control location. Both laws make clear the benefit and need for much wider use of solar power.

Where once farmers in Wheatfield and on Grand Island plowed for corn or were unable to grow anything at all, they will begin to reap the bounty of the sun in good clean electric energy.

Let’s hope these two forward-thinking towns set the pace for all of Western New York.

Larry Beahan is conservation chairman of the Sierra Club Niagara Group.

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