The following stories were posted on the Bob’s Local Reporting webpage with datelines during August 2019:
State figures allow Enfield’s budget planners breathing room
by Robert Lynch, August 28, 2019
Next year’s Enfield Town Budget could increase its tax levy by over four per cent before hitting the State’s property tax cap, Town Supervisor Beth McGee advised her fellow Town Board members Tuesday.
McGee’s figures, conveyed to the town through the New York State Comptroller’s Office, would permit the 2020 tax levy to rise by over $74,000 from the nearly $ 1.79 Million levied for the current fiscal year. McGee’s calculations would place the tax cap at 4.16 per cent above the current levy.
Board members greeted the extra financial headroom with welcome relief Tuesday. Nonetheless, the Board still plans to proceed to legislatively override the tax cap through passage of a local law later this year. A Public Hearing on the tax cap override law is scheduled for the Board’s September 11th meeting.
“It would be irresponsible not to pass this,” Town Councilperson Mimi Mehaffey said of the override when the Board set the hearing date earlier this month. Mehaffey and other Board members argued that an override law provides an element of protection against budgetary uncertainty.
The State Comptroller’s tax cap, imposed annually upon municipalities since 2012, encourages counties, cities, towns, villages, and most school districts to restrain their budgets so as to minimize their impact upon taxpayers. Mischaracterized in its statutory language as a “two per cent tax cap,” the state restriction is subject to so many financial adjustments that municipal leaders are left guessing each year as to the actual percentage of their allowable increase. Percentages vary from one government to the next, even within the ten municipalities of Tompkins County.
This year’s magic number, set by the State as the maximum tax levy for Enfield without an override is $1,864,858, according to Supervisor McGee.
While much may be made of the municipal tax cap, the legal and operational impact of exceeding the State’s mandate remains minimal. The State imposes no financial penalties. Municipal governing boards need only adopt the tax cap override law by a 60 per cent majority. For the Enfield Board, such a majority would require, by simple math, the consent of three of its five members.
That three-of-five majority is what the Board requires for passage of a resolution or Local Law in any event.
Supervisor McGee advised her Board she intends to submit her tentative budget for member review by late-September.
Enfield Town Board adopts much-awaited Solar Law
by Robert Lynch, August 27, 2019
“It’s been a long time in the making,” said Enfield Councilperson Becky Sims.
“It’s good to have that done,” echoed Councilperson Michael Carpenter.
Sims’ and Carpenter’s words of self-congratulation followed the Enfield Town Board’s unanimous and seemingly anti-climactic approval Tuesday (Aug. 27th) of the town’s new Solar Law, a package of regulations more than two years in the planning.
After the meeting, prime drafters of the law, Town Councilperson Mimi Mehaffey and Jude Lemke, both members of the town’s Renewable Energy Advisory Committee, shared hugs.
Town Board adoption of the Solar Law, which takes the form of numerous amendments to Enfield’s Site Plan Review Law, spells the end of a twice-extended moratorium on Large-Scale Solar Energy Systems (LSES’s). The moratorium, imposed in June 2017 and first expected to last only one year, will now expire August 31st at the end of its 26th month. A companion moratorium on new commercial wind energy facilities in Enfield is ongoing, now set to expire November 30th.
The Solar Law’s impact upon small-scale residential solar installations will be minimal. Most home-based solar facilities will remain exempt from Site Plan review.
No members of the public addressed the Board prior to its Tuesday vote. Board member comment was minimal. The Board completed its Solar Law approvals in only 20 minutes.
As expected, the Town Board members Tuesday formalized their rejection of key recommendations made earlier this month by Katherine Borgella, Tompkins County’s Commissioner of Planning and Sustainability. Borgella, in a letter to the Town Attorney August 6th, had objected to four elements of the draft Enfield law which she said “may have negative inter-community or county-wide impacts.” Borgella’s recommended changes had included removing the requirements that new LSES applicants submit a mandatory “glare assessment survey,” or that an LSES occupy no more than 60 per cent of the property on which its sited.
As they had expressed informally August 14th, Board members brushed aside the county planner’s concerns. The Enfield Board asserted that glare assessments are easy to prepare and inexpensive—estimated to cost under $5,000—and that glare assessments are “burdens that should be on the developer.”
As for the Solar Law’s 60 per cent lot coverage limitation, the Town argued that the county planner failed to recognize the Town’s intention—purportedly derived from public comments in a yet-to-be-approved Comprehensive Plan—that it seeks to preserve Enfield’s “rural character.”
In all, three of the County’s “Recommendations” were rejected in total; the fourth, addressing rear and side setback requirements for LSES’s, was accepted, but with modifications.
The Planning Commissioner’s only enforcement power was to compel that a supermajority of Town Board members—four out of five—vote to override the County’s preferences. Tuesday’s unanimous approval rendered her objections without force.
Yet to be resolved in future months are the requirements whereby LSES operators will provide the Town with a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) when such projects are otherwise awarded tax exemptions. Town Supervisor Beth McGee acknowledged that she would have preferred the PILOT language be in place first, prior to the Solar Law’s adoption.
But in noting that the PILOT law remains unresolved, McGee stated of the timing, “It’s not problematic to me.”
Board members will now turn their attention to the more ambitious—and detailed—Enfield Wind Law. Further discussion of the Wind Law is now targeted for a special meeting September 24th. The Board may hold a Public Hearing on that law as soon as October 9th.
Enfield Board extends Wind Moratorium through November
by Robert Lynch, August 14, 2019, Updated August 15, 2019
With one member abstaining and another absent, the Enfield Town Board Wednesday (August 14th) extended for three additional months the Town’s 26-month-long moratorium on new commercial wind energy facilities.
The Town’s Local Law, drafted by Councilperson Mimi Mehaffey and now adopted, will prohibit new wind farm applications from being filed before this November 30th. The moratorium would end sooner only if the Town adopts before that date a new and tougher Wind Law, now two years in the making.
Wednesday night’s vote followed a lively Public Hearing on the moratorium’s extension at which a dozen local residents spoke. Nearly all the commenters favored the extension. The Hearing’s most dramatic moment came when Harvey Hill Road resident Ron Riddle, accompanied by a powerful sound system, sprayed the small room with ear-piercing noise, his demonstration intended to dramatize the inadequacy of the current Wind Law.
The sound, purportedly played at a level of 70-75 decibels, was not, advocates later stressed, designed to equal that of a commercial wind turbine. Rather, they said, it was intended to dramatize the potential level of noise that the current law would permit at the houses near a wind device.
The Hearing drew commenters disproportionately from Black Oak Road and its surrounding area, where commercial wind operators had hoped to construct a wind farm prior to the Enfield Moratorium. Developers abandoned the proposed Black Oak Wind Farm in 2017.
Mehaffey and Councilperson Michael Carpenter were the moratorium extension’s prime sponsors. Their efforts secured the support of Town Supervisor Beth McGee, but not of Councilperson Becky Sims, who abstained. (Councilperson Virginia Bryant was absent.) Sims, who reluctantly mumbled her abstention, did so only after observing that her fellow townspeople—at least, those who attended the Hearing—may favor an outright ban on commercial wind power and nothing less.
Sims observed, “The way I read the [proposed] Wind Law, it reads like a ban.” Sims added, “If people want a ban, maybe that should be on the table.”
Mehaffey countered that to her, the nearly finished Wind Law “is not a ban.” Rather, Mehaffey said, the Town only wants “to have safeguards up.”
Supervisor McGee said she does not agree on the wisdom of a wind farm ban. But the wind farm operators “have to do it within the confines of our community,” she stated.
Commenters at the Hearing drew at times upon emotional themes. Rich Teeter of Black Oak Road remembered that the decade-long wind farm controversy named after his road “tore neighbors apart.” It was an ordeal he’d hope a stronger law would avoid repeating.
Meanwhile, another Black Oak Road resident, Rob Tesori, said the emotional part of the wind controversy “has taken its toll” on him. Tesori said that he still pictures his house as only a house, not a home. “I won’t put more into it until I know there’s something to protect it,” he said.
Only one of the speakers, Robert Lynch (this writer), urged the Board to reject the moratorium’s extension. Lynch said the current moratorium, originally intended to last just one year, has been extended long enough and should end. Lynch cautioned that those who think another large-scale wind farm is coming to Enfield anytime soon are engaging in “flights of fancy.”
Jude Lemke, leader of the Town’s Renewable Energy Advisory Committee, began the hearing by faulting Lynch for allegedly “misunderstanding the complexity in drafting laws,” Lemke said it took her committee the full 26 months to resolve a “myriad of issues.”
Supervisor McGee later remarked that the complexity arose, in part, because the Town chose to write its own law, not merely cut-and-paste someone else’s. An import, McGee said, “doesn’t have the voice of the community.”
Before Wednesday’s action, the Town’s Wind Moratorium was scheduled to expire August 31st. A companion moratorium on commercial solar facilities, not part of the extension, will expire, as planned, at month’s end.
Enfield Board rebuffs County planners; retains key provisions of Solar Law
by Robert Lynch, August 15, 2019
Despite the concerns of Tompkins County’s planning staff, the Enfield Town Board Wednesday (Aug. 14th) agreed informally to keep in place key provisions of the Town’s proposed new Solar Law, provisions the County had judged as too restrictive.
No votes were taken. However, the four Board members in attendance (Councilperson Virginia Bryant was absent) reached consensus to override County planners’ recommended modifications that addressed lot densities and a mandated “glare assessment survey” for any newly-proposed Large-Scale Solar Energy System (LSES).
The Town Board is poised to adopt the Solar Law as soon as August 21st. By agreeing to override the County’s objections, Town Board adoption of the law would require a supermajority of Town Board members—four out of five. It’s unlikely the higher threshold will pose a problem. So far, all Board members have supported the proposed Solar Law.
In a letter to the Town Attorney Guy Kroh, dated August 6th, Katherine Borgella, the County’s Commissioner of Planning and Sustainability, stated that her Department’s review had determined that the proposed Enfield Law, as drafted, “may have negative inter-community or county-wide impacts.” Borgella advanced four “Recommended Modifications,” plus additional non-binding ”Comments.” The changes, Borgella stated, would make the Enfield law more acceptable to her Department.
Town Board members Wednesday pointedly rejected two of the recommendations. They embraced a third recommendation with minor changes, and determined that the fourth amounted to the County’s misreading of the Town’s laws. In most instances, members followed the recommendations of the Town’s Renewable Energy Advisory Committee, which had reviewed Borgella’s letter days earlier.
The Planning Department had determined as unnecessary a proposed Enfield regulation that would limit an LSES to no more than 60 per cent of the lot on which a solar farm is built. On that point, Borgella explained, “any storm water management issues [can] be addressed in other ways.”
Town Councilperson Mimi Mehaffey Wednesday countered that water runoff wasn’t the issue. Instead, said Mehaffey, “It’s really about how much rural land we leave open.”
Likewise, Board members rejected County concerns that a “glare assessment survey” would be too onerous a requirement for every LSES applicant to prepare. The County had urged glare analysis be mandated only when a nearby parcel is “particularly sensitive to glare.” Board members argued, in response, that such analyses are “easy to prepare and inexpensive.” One member estimated the cost at under $5,000.
Supervisor Beth McGee agreed with the mandate’s retention. “If glare analysis is not done,” McGee said, “it limits the use of adjoining properties.”
County planners also had suggested, though not formally recommended, that the Town relax its requirement that an LSES applicant serve legal notice notice of its plans to every property owner within a one mile radius. Instead, the County suggested a 600 foot service area, noting that the Town is only six miles square. Board members chose to stick with their original requirement.
“One mile is not unreasonable,” McGee maintained.
[Note: In a Privilege of the Floor comment at the close of the Wednesday’s meeting, Robert Lynch, this reporter, submitted a statement urging the Town Board to amend its proposed Solar Law to incorporate the County’s recommendations and suggestions.]
Area Democrats Convene and Nominate Two for State Court Judgeships
by Robert Lynch
(Binghamton, NY, August 10, 2019): Quickly and unanimously, party delegates, convening in Binghamton Saturday, nominated Claudette Newman of Gilbertsville and Peter Charnetsky of Vestal to be this year’s Democratic candidates for State Supreme Court Justice in the Sixth Judicial District. The Sixth District includes Enfield and all of Tompkins County.
“Have we voted?” Judge Newman asked in surprise, as the Party Convention’s Chair invited her to speak following the 40-member delegation’s joint endorsement of her and Judge Charnetsky by acclimation. The nominating convention, held at the Binghamton Double Tree Hotel and Conference Center, lasted only about 25 minutes. The absence of intra-party opposition sped the nominating process. Indeed, one of the judicial seats needed to be filled this November will lack a Democratic contender. Judges Newman and Charnetsky were the only two candidates within the party to seek the state judgeships this year.
In recent weeks, Democratic Party officials had worried they might not secure the legally-required quorum of 28 delegates to vote on the judicial nominations. A failure to do so would have ceded each of the races to Republicans. Judicial delegates are chosen through separate slates designated by Democratic voters within each of the ten-county Sixth District’s nine State Assembly Districts. The GOP had succeeded in striking Democratic slates from four of the Assembly Districts. As for Tompkins County’s 12-member delegation, the State Board of Elections rejected a GOP challenge that it had based on an alleged clerical error when petitions were filed.
At Saturday’s Convention, delegate and Tompkins County Democratic Party Chair James Gustafson nominated Newman and seconded Charnetsky’s nomination. Said Chair Gustafson of Newman, “She will bring new energy and a fresh perspective to the bench,” describing Claudette as one who’s “helped shape the course of the courts.”
“She’s a role model for women and girls,” Gustafson said.
Tioga County Democratic Chair and 2018 Congressional Candidate Max Della Pia, in his seconding speech of Newman, commended her as “one of the most experienced [candidates] we’ve had in a long time.” He added, “She’s someone we can be very proud of.”
Following his own nomination, Charnetsky, currently Broome County Family Court Judge, said he senses “a lot of enthusiasm for Democrats” this year, predicting it will “bode well for our local candidates.” Charnetsky pointed with pride to the fact that within 30 days his campaign’s Facebook page has generated as many as 1000 “Likes.”
Judge Newman, a former Chenango County State Supreme Court Law Clerk and for the past seven years, Butternuts (Otsego County) Town Justice, noted that Saturday’s nomination coincided with her 50th birthday. Newman said she seeks to be “a judge for all the people.” The formerly Republican Town Justice conceded that winning her race will be an “uphill climb” in her GOP-heavy Sixth District. “But we can win,” she predicted.
2019 will be Judge Newman’s second attempt in as many years at a State Supreme Court Judgeship and Judge Charnetsky’s first. Newman lost the 2018 Democratic nomination in a three-way contest to Cortland City Court Judge Elizabeth Burns. Judge Burns, who then lost her race narrowly to a Republican last November, chose not to run this time.
Mark Masler of Cortland, Oliver Blaise of Binghamton, and Christopher Baker of Elmira are the Republican candidates for the three judgeships, according to records filed with the State Board of Elections.
Note: The writer, Robert Lynch, was a voting Tompkins County Alternate Delegate to the Sixth District’s Democratic Judicial Convention.
County Planners fault restrictions in draft Enfield Solar Law
by Robert Lynch, August 8, 2019
Restrictive provisions of a draft Enfield Solar Law, including proposed lengthy setback requirements and a mandatory “glare assessment survey” for new Large-Scale Solar Energy Systems (LSES’s), are being criticized by Tompkins County’s planning staff.
In an August 6th letter to Town Attorney Guy Kroh, Katherine Borgella, the County’s Commissioner of Planning and Sustainability, stated that her Department’s review has determined that the proposed Enfield Solar Law “may have negative inter-community or county-wide impacts” because of four objected-to provisions. Borgella added, “We recommend modification of the proposal.”
The proposed Enfield Solar Law, which would take the form of numerous amendments to the Town’s Site Plan Review Law, was the subject of a Town Board Public Hearing July 24th. The law is expected to receive final Board action August 21st.
County Planning Department review of the Solar Law is a procedural requirement. While the County, itself, cannot block the Town’s adoption of the objected-to provisions, Borgella wrote that if the Town chose to ignore her Department’s objections, the Town Board would need to muster a supermajority, and not just a simple majority, to adopt the Solar Law.
Borgella’s so-called “County 239 Review” containing the planners’ concerns, is listed on the Town Board’s agenda for discussion August 14.
The Planning Department’s August 6th letter specifically outlined four “Recommended Modifications” to the Draft Solar Law. It also included a bullet-pointed list of additional “Comments.” Borgella allowed that the “Comments” are advisory only and do not constitute “formal recommendations” under New York’s General Municipal Law.
Among the concerns, the planners’ “Recommendations” fault as too restrictive the draft law’s proposed setback requirements for new LSES’s. The draft law proposes that any large commercial solar facility maintain a 50-foot setback from lot lines and at least a 125-foot setback from road centerlines. “We recommend not requiring more than 30 foot rear or side setbacks, excluding fencing,” Borgella stated.
Planners also criticized the draft law’s stipulation that any large solar farm occupy no more than 60 per cent of the lot on which it’s installed. “We recommend that there be no lot coverage limitation,” Borgella wrote, “and that any stormwater management issues be addressed in other ways.”
As drafted by the Town, any proposed LSES would, as part of the approval process, be required to submit a glare assessment survey, addressing potential sun glare from solar panels on adjacent properties. In response, Borgella stated, “We recommend that glare analyses only be required when there is a use nearby that is particularly sensitive to glare.”
The Department’s remaining recommendation addresses smaller-scale Ground-Mounted Solar Energy Systems, commonly installed by homeowners, arrays the law would largely exempt from Site Plan Review. The Department recommends broader language so that the systems would “be allowed as an accessory use of the property, not just for residential uses.”
By coincidence or not, three of the four Departmental “Recommendations” parallel the objections submitted by Robert Lynch (this writer) in his written testimony at the Town Board’s July Public Hearing. Providing as many as eight bullet-pointed objections to the Town’s proposed regulation of LSES’s, Lynch wrote, “The Solar Law’s proposed labyrinth of governmental micro-management would, in my opinion, treat a solar farm more as a danger to be feared than an opportunity to be encouraged.”
For the record, this writer has not communicated his concerns to Tompkins County planning staff. He stands unaware whether staff may have accessed his Hearing comments in the course of their review.
Should the five-member Enfield Town Board choose to circumvent the Planning Department’s objections, the Solar Law would require four votes, not just three, to muster its supermajority of support. To date, no Town Board member has expressed an objection to the draft law, as written.
Adoption of Enfield’s Solar Law is expected to occur before a twice-amended Wind and Solar Moratorium expires on August 31st.
The Tompkins County Planning and Sustainability Department’s letter detailing its objections to the Enfield Solar Law can be accessed on the Town of Enfield’s website: http://townofenfield.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/T.-Enfield-Proposed-Solar-SPR-Amendments-GML-239-Review-08-06-19.pdf
For earlier-posted stories, view the May-June and July Reporting Archives sub-heading under this tab.