September 3, 2019
Mr. Joseph LaCivita, Chair (by e-mail only)
Director of Planning & Economic Development
Town of Colonie Public Operations Center
347 Old Niskayuna Road
Latham, NY 12110
RE: 2772 & 2792 Curry Rd. – Eden Renewables proposed Solar Farm
Dear Director LaCivita,
Thank you for requesting Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission (APBPC) review and comment on the above referenced sketch plan. The Albany Pine Bush supports the world’s best remaining example of an inland pitch pine-scrub oak barrens, 78 wildlife Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN), including the endangered Karner blue butterfly, and the largest inland sand dune system in eastern North America. It has been designated a National Natural Landmark, a National Heritage Area Site, a NYS Bird Conservation Area and a National Audubon Society Important Bird Area. Coordinating the review of development proposals within the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Study Area is therefore an essential part of achieving the vision for the Albany Pine Bush Preserve consistent with Environmental Conservation Law (ECL) Article 46, the 2017 Management Plan Update for the Albany Pine Bush Preserve (APBPC 2017), and the Town of Colonie Comprehensive Plan.
The APBPC Technical Committee and staff were provided an overview of a proposal for a community solar-native pollinator project, under a 25-year lease, by the applicant at its August 6, 2019 meeting. We appreciate that Eden Renewables is interested pursuing this community solar project to benefit the conservation of pollinators native to the Albany Pine Bush, including the Karner blue butterfly, by seeding and managing the site with native Pine Bush grasses and wildflowers. The comments below outline the Technical Committee’s initial response to the information provided. In general, the APBPC supports alternative green energy solutions and the Town’s efforts in that regard. None the less, the Technical Committee has concerns about the potential for negative impacts associated with the location of this project (in an area recommended for Full Protection in the 2017 Management Plan Update) that should be investigated during the municipal review of the proposal. However, in the absence of the ability to fully protect the two parcels through acquisition, the proposed community solar pollinator project is not completely incompatible with the vision for the preserve outlined in both NYS Environmental Conservation Law (ECL) Article 46, and the 2017 Management Plan Update. We welcome the opportunity to work with the Town and the applicant, throughout the municipal review of this project to help avoid, minimize and mitigate potentially significant adverse impacts on the Commission’s ability to create and manage a viable preserve.
Protection: The project site is within an area recommended for Full Protection (Protection Area 72b) in the 2017 Management Plan Update (and 2010 Management Plan and FEIS) for the Albany Pine Bush Preserve, and is an area the Commission attempted to protect through fee- title acquisition on multiple occasions. Areas designated for Full Protection are considered important to protecting a viable preserve and are recommended for protection in their entirety using the greatest means of protection possible, including donation, acquisition in fee, land exchanges/swaps, purchase of development rights, or conservation easement. The recommendation for Full Protection is based on the occurrence of existing/restorable pine barrens, endangered species and the ability to link and buffer adjacent protected lands. Increasing preserve continuity is one of the most important aspects of the APBPC’s conservation efforts, especially in this section of the Town. This site is also within the Pine Bush conservation overlay district of the Town, adjacent to protected preserve, and between several protected properties occupied with endangered species and other SGCN wildlife. We therefore appreciate the Town and the applicant’s interest in coordinating review of the project with the APBPC. State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA): While the proposed physical ground disturbance is limited, the installation of a community solar project on the (cumulative) 74+/- acre parcel will effectively eliminate land recommended for Full Protection. The application is therefore likely to meet the SEQRA Type I Action classification threshold since it is adjacent to protected preserve, likely supports endangered species, and is substantially contiguous to several protected properties within a National Natural Landmark. SEQRA provides Type I threshold reductions for projects substantially contiguous to protected lands and registered National Natural Landmarks. It also provides that agencies can require applicants complete the Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF) for certain Unlisted Actions. The APBPC therefore recommends the applicant complete an FEAF for this project. Conservation Analysis: Endangered Species - Considering all of the above, and specifically the likelihood that site contains both threatened and endangered species (frosted elfin and Karner blue butterflies, respectively), and its proximity to two protected sites supporting both species, the APBPC recommends that the applicant coordinate with the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – New York Field Office (copied below) to evaluate the site for the occurrence of these species and their associated habitats. This evaluation will provide the Town and the applicant with the appropriate SEQRA hard look at potentially significant negative impacts and facilitate developing effective minimization and/or mitigation strategies (e.g. reducing project size, Safe Harbor, etc.) with state and federal regulatory wildlife agencies. Preserve Management – Another important consideration is potentially negative impacts on the Commission’s ability to manage adjacent preserve lands. There are currently two adjacent protected properties east and south of the project site and additional protection in progress north and south of the project site. In particular it will be important to evaluate potential negative impacts on the commission’s ability to manage adjacent preserve properties with controlled wildland fire (prescribed fire) and ensure any invasive species within the project site are appropriately managed. The applicant appeared to understand these concerns and be willing to work with the Town and Commission to avoid and minimize these potential impacts.
In conclusion, the APBPC appreciates that this project is not necessarily incompatible with conservation of the Albany Pine Bush, but we remained concerned its siting may have negative impacts on the APBPC’s ability to protect and manage a viable preserve. We therefore recommend a more thorough evaluation of existing conditions and potentially significant negative impacts in consultation with NYSDEC and USFWS. Specifically such an analysis should evaluate potential impacts to endangered species and the APBPC’s ability to protect and manage the Albany Pine Bush Preserve, including the use of prescribed fire, consistent with ECL Article 46 and the 2017 Management Plan Update. A FEAF may be the most appropriate tool for initiating an evaluation of these potentially adverse environmental impacts, provided it includes on-site consultation with USFWS and NYSDEC endangered species biologists. The APBPC remains committed to working with the Town and the applicant to evaluate potential impacts and develop appropriate strategies for balancing development and the conservation of important environmental resources on this site.
The APBPC is therefore optimistic that the planned development for the site can occur in conjunction with a sound protection plan to avoid, minimize and mitigate, to the maximum extent practicable adverse environmental impacts. This letter is not an endorsement of the proposed plans.
Neil A. Gifford
cc: Mr. Keith Goertz, APBPC Chair –NYSDEC Region 4 Director
Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission Technical Committee
Mr. Christopher A. Hawver, APBPC Executive Director
Mrs. Angelika Stewart, Environmental Analyst, NYSDEC – Region 4
Mrs. Nancy Baker, NYSDEC – Region 4
Ms. Robyn Niver, Biologist USFWS-NY Field Office
Ms. Kathleen O’Brien, Biologist, NYSDEC – Central Office
APBPC. 2017. Management Plan Update for the Albany Pine Bush Preserve. Albany, NY. (www.albanypinebush.org)