As Sullivan County is experiencing a resurgence of tourism development, the Sullivan Catskills Visitors Association...
“I happen to think of this as farming,” said Callicoon homeowner Richard Winter of his latest business venture in rural energy and sustainable agriculture. “Farming the sun.”
Ten years ago, Winter went looking for place in the mountains, easily accessible to hiking and outdoor activities. The then CEO of a privately held bond investing company who isn’t, he said, “a Hamptons type,” was captivated by a custom home with an expansive view of the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, high above the hamlet of Callicoon. There, Winter discovered beekeeping. “Next thing I know I’ve got 500 grassfed beef walking around,” Winter said.
Today, Winter operates five cattle farms in two counties – Sullivan and Otsego – and has built a supply chain, under the Chaljeri Meats brand, from farm to butcher shop.
Along the way Winter forged relationships with the farming community and local townships.
Also capturing his attention: the surge in demand for commercial solar installations – a market heavily subsidized by
New York State that aims to have 50 percent of the State’s electricity generated by renewable energy sources by 2030.
Adept at leveraging lucrative business opportunities, Winter formed Delaware River Solar (DRS) in 2015. The New York-based company develops, builds and manages Community Solar projects that pump electricity into the local utility grid.
Subscribers to a solar project benefit from credits and discounts on their electric utility bill without footing any upfront costs, installation, equipment or maintenance fees. A typical DRS Community Solar project is built on 10- 12 acres of open land and can power 300 to 400 residential homes and businesses for one year.
Green Light in the Town of Delaware
The first Delaware River Solar array on track to be operational in Sullivan County – known as The Baer Road Project – earned unanimous approval in the Town of Delaware in February.
Located on Winter’s private land, the Baer Road array spans 10 acres, utilizing roughly 8,000 panels. An inverter to convert DC power to AC current to feed the grid sits in the middle of the array, thereby minimizing neighbors’ concerns of noise during sunrise to sunset operating hours. Up and running, the array will generate 2 megawatts.
Delaware River Solar has endeavored to address myriad issues raised by residents, from potential negative health impacts to lowered property values. To get the go-ahead, Delaware River Solar responded to view-shed concerns voiced by Baer Road neighbors. In the end the company re-engineered initial plans – three times.
The company also committed to plant indigenous species of a vegetative buffer, if needed, to protect the view from neighboring homes and Route 97; limit construction work hours; bury new transmission lines, if needed; use no herbicides or pesticides on grass near the panels; and use only water or “green” products to clean the panels.
“A couple of residents at Town meetings brought Rich’s character into question,” said Town of Delaware Supervisor Edward Sykes. “His actions have proven the opposite.”
“The Planning Board asked a lot of Rich and he complied,” said Sykes. “He does what he says he will. We’ve found Delaware River Solar to be a fine company, responsive and sensitive to residents.”
Reports from two independent engineering firms – one hired by the company a second by the Town – also helped advance approval of the first project. Residents want to be confident DRS is “solar, done right,” said Cindy Menges, a long-time resident of western Sullivan who manages customer acquisition and marketing in Sullivan and Delaware counties for the company.
Baer Road construction is slated for April, with mid- to late summer estimated for power production.
DRS is actively developing 40 projects statewide – all in the NYSEG service area except one. In Sullivan County, DRS has approached about 50 landowners and signed 25 to lease or purchase suitable sites with a flat, southerly exposure.
The company bolsters odds of getting a “yes” by offering significantly more per acre over the going price of farmland. Roughly 70 percent of sites are leased; 30 percent are purchased.
In Sullivan County, the towns of Bethel, Cochecton, Delaware, Fremont, Fallsburg, Liberty, Thompson and Tusten – several in moratoria – are evaluating DRS project impacts on zoning, taxes, permitting and residents’ concerns.
IDA’s Tax Abatement Application Fast Tracks Development
In December, the Sullivan County Industrial Development Agency approved a policy making commercial solar arrays eligible for tax abatements from the IDA, provided towns and villages demonstrate support.
As reported in the Sullivan County Democrat, the uniform application “offers sales tax abatements on all purchases related to creating and equipping such projects, mortgage tax abatements, and a 20-year graduated PILOT (Payments In Lieu Of Taxes) based on the gross revenue or array generation capacity (whichever is greater). PILOT payments will be divided among host townships, villages and school districts in proportion to their tax rates.”
Under state law, commercial arrays could remain tax-exempt. The county PILOT program contributes to the tax base of town’s that would not otherwise receive tax revenue, and provides a clear and standard tax incentive to promote renewable energy development.
Delaware River Solar is using and adapting the uniform application developed with the Sullivan County IDA elsewhere in New York State, to fast-track municipal project approval.
“We are looking to pay the PILOT in every town,” said Winter of benefits to taxpayers. Saving on utility bills means more dollars stay in the pockets of residents for a multiplier effect in the local economy.
What can other businesses learn from Delaware River Solar’s path to get the goahead on its first project in Sullivan?
“Introducing a new project as broadly and as early as possible,” advises Winter. Education takes time. “We’re finding across the state that as long as there is understanding of why we’re here and what we’re doing, 90% of people are eventually on board.”