MALONE — The Town Board unanimously and adamantly passed a local law barring tax exemptions for large-scale solar projects following a well-attended public hearing held prior to the regular board meeting Wednesday night.
A standing-room only crowd of local residents and officials voiced concerns about a lack of transparency and communication from Geronimo Energy, the company planning to erect a 900-acre, 150-megawatt solar farm in the town and village of Malone.
Those attending the hearing primarily voiced opinions against the project and lauded the board for its efforts to slow the project’s progress and ensure tax-related benefits for the community.
Malone resident Wayne Miller cautioned the board against making any rash decisions regarding the project, stating that other similar undertakings have been characterized by their “waste, fraud, abuse … disappointment and broken promises.”
Malone supervisor candidate Andrea Stewart also voiced the need for the developer to pay taxes on the project, noting that “taxpayers pick up the slack” when exemptions are given to corporations.
Other residents, including Dr. Calvin Martin of Malone, voiced environmental and other concerns relating to the project, but primarily focused on the “sneaky” business tactics of the energy development company and an alleged lack of transparency and incomplete information regarding the local benefits of the project.
Geronimo Energy representative Andy Cantonia attended the meeting to address “common concerns that we hear a lot,” but received criticism for his inability to provide a greater amount of specific information about the project.
“Your silence is golden,” said Malone resident Mike Fournier, who owns property adjacent to the proposed development site.
Cantonia cited the early stage of the project’s development and the fact that the company has not yet built or decommissioned a project of this scale to justify the lack of specificity. He also asserted a need for further research and studies on subjects including noise level, glare and the impact on migratory birds.
Cantonia addressed public concern about a potential “heat island” effect resulting from the placement of the dark-colored solar panels, stating that the project “isn’t going to be changing the climate in Malone.”
Franklin County Director of Economic Development Russ Kinyon also voiced opposition to the company’s business tactics and inadequate communication regarding taxation of the project.
“We have serious concerns about honesty and transparency,” said Kinyon.
Kinyon noted that the developers initially approached the county in February to state their interest in developing a 90-acre project in Malone and “never mentioned” their intentions to multiply the scale of the project by 10.
“Even that seemed like a lot at the time,” said Kinyon, who added, “there are other areas in the county where we would love to see solar development.”
Kinyon also spoke against the company’s alleged attempts to meet with officials in private and “manipulate individuals,” asserting that all parties involved must be equally informed.
The economic development director also questioned the company’s stated intention to pay “a significant portion” of taxes due on the property, noting that the most recent payment offers would equate to a tax rate of 0.02 percent.
Though Cantonia expressed the company’s plan to make “a tax contribution” to the town, and mentioned “community funds” established in other host communities, he declined to say exactly what the developers intend to pay.
Full tax payments on the leased property would equal roughly $5.7 million, according to Kinyon, who added that the company’s inability to pay that amount is “a business model problem, not our problem.”
County Legislator Carl Sherwin noted that the county would be willing to organize a large-scale town hall meeting to allow further public discussion of the project, which Cantonia agreed to attend.
“We need different answers and more answers,” said Malone Supervisor Howard Maneely.