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Solar Moratorium In Columbia Possible

As one of the few steps the Town of Columbia can take to control the planned mega-Solar Energy Farm project, a moratorium is up for decision next month.

Town Board members at last week’s Board meeting set a public hearing for the Feb. 9 meeting to get input on the matter. Board members can also vote later that night to pass the moratorium.

EDF Renewables is in the process of signing leases with landowners in the town to secure enough property for their proposed project. The proposal for the Columbia Solar Project would encompass 2,200 acres, all but about 50 of those in Columbia. The remaining property is in the Town of Litchfield.

Because of the size of the project, deeming it a super project, the Town has little to no say in any aspect, including permits and regulations. A state law takes away local control and puts it on a state level for large energy projects.

The meeting, which lasted three hours, drew about 60 residents. About half of the meeting was comment from members of the public.

Attorney Ben Wisniewski, hired by the town to represent them in the project, spoke via remotely to open the evening. Wisniewski specializes in representing municipalities in solar project issues.

He first explained that while the town hired him, the cost of doing so comes from a required escrow account EDF has to provide. That money is for the town to hire legal counsel and other experts for research, he said.

That fund is provided upfront by EDF before state money becomes available, Wisniewski said, saying he is not being paid by EDF.

He also addressed claims of conflict of interest with Town Supervisor George Weiss and members of his family signing a lease with EDF. Weiss’ brother, David, is also chairman of the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

Wisniewski said he saw no conflict with either role in regards to the solar project. Because the ZBA and Town Board have no role in approving or rejecting the solar farm, their town roles do not create a conflict either ethically or legally, he said.

However, Wisniewski said he could understand how George Weiss’ position could give the appearance of a conflict. He advised Weiss to recuse himself on all discussions, votes and decisions in regards to the solar project other than listen to public discussion. Should the Board need to discuss the matter in an executive session, Weiss should recuse himself from that also, Wisniewski said.

Board members approved having Deputy Supervisor H. Ed Reed lead the Town Board discussions when it comes to the solar project. Weiss made the motion to do so.

Columbia already has regulations for solar energy projects approved. The moratorium would halt all commercial projects in the town for one year while the town reviews its law to see if updates are necessary…

The full story is in this week's edition of the newspaper. 

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