The state wants to hear what Canton has to say about the Rich Road solar project – North Country Public Radio

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Catherine WheelerThe state wants to hear what Canton has to say about the Rich Road solar project

New York State wants 70% of its electricity to come from renewable energy by 2030. It’s aiming to have 100% zero-emission electricity by a decade later. 

To meet increasing demand, private companies are proposing a slew of solar developments all over the state, including in the North Country. It’s easy to build in the region because the land is cheap, and much of it has been cleared for agriculture.

Site map for the Rich Road solar facility in the The Town of Canton. Photo: EDF Renewables Development

In Canton, a company called EDF Renewables wants to build a large-scale commercial solar project just southwest of the village. The Rich Road project would take up about 1,700 acres and spread out on both sides of Route 11. It would be the single largest solar development in St. Lawrence County so far and would produce up to 240 megawatts of energy. That’s enough to power 61,400 homes, according to EDF.

The project’s backdrop is acres of privately owned land in the Town of Canton. But the town’s board doesn’t get to decide what happens.

The state’s Office of Renewable Energy Siting (ORES) regulates large-scale green energy projects in New York, like Rich Road. The agency can supersede local zoning laws. The state argues that it keeps projects from getting delayed and is more efficient.

“The Rich Road project is a different structure…This is a state project. The state doesn’t necessarily have to follow our local law,” said Canton Town Supervisor Mary Ann Ashley.

So local people like Ashley want to get as much out of this multinational company as they can.


Right now, money is a big sticking point. 

EDF has to pay local governments instead of paying property taxes. That amount hasn’t been settled yet. But it’s estimated that close to two-thirds of it will go to Canton’s school district. The county will get a quarter. The town will get about 8%.

Ashley’s not satisfied with that.

“New York State will be achieving some of their clean energy goals. EDF is going to be making so much money,” Ashley said. “The lease owners, can’t blame them for signing on, right? The school, as a result of our solar pilot agreements, is going to be making out. The county is going to be making out. The town is going to be making the least.”

The state also requires the developer to pay a host community benefit agreement, which can mean more money for the town, but that amount has not been agreed upon either. 


Beyond the money, local people have a whole host of other things they’re worried about.

There are environmental and safety concerns. The Rich Road project includes a proposed 20-megawatt battery storage site. Last year, three battery storage sites in New York caught on fire, including in neighboring Jefferson County. Potential emergencies could put a strain on already limited EMS resources in the area.

In response to the fires, Gov. Kathy Hochul assembled the Inter-Agency Fire Safety Working Group. In February, the group released its initial recommendations to make battery storage safer. 

Land development

Then, there’s a debate about the land itself.

“The permanently impacted active agricultural land is about 1,165 acres, and out of that, 603 acres are considered prime agricultural land,” Jason Pfotenhauer, the director of the St. Lawrence County Planning Office, said. “The county is concerned about the consumption of that prime agricultural land because the ag industry is so vibrant in St. Lawrence County. And if there is no more agricultural land to till, then we will see the loss of that ag industry.”

The county recognizes the need for more renewable energy, Pfotenhauer said. But this is about being strategic about what land is developed, especially if more companies want to build solar here. The planning office recently created a new online tool that identifies the best spots for solar development in the county. 

Solar panels at Zufall Farm in St. Lawrence County. Photo: Catherine Wheeler

Solar panels at Zufall Farm in St. Lawrence County. Photo: Catherine Wheeler

“It’s the biggest new land use in Saint Lawrence County,” Pfotenhauer said. “It needs to be planned for and addressed and unintended consequences have to be mitigated somehow.”

Officials from EDF said they chose the spot along Route 11 to avoid some other good farmland to the north and marshlands to the south. The site is also very close to where they can link up to the electrical grid so the energy can travel downstate.

The concerns about the location also go beyond the land’s purpose. Locals are worried about what it’s going to look like. EDF says they have plans to use berms, trees and shrubs to mostly keep it from view, project developer Jonathan Geldard said.

“Through landscape mitigation and design, we were able to really reduce or almost completely eliminate the viewshed from the road to any of our solar arrays along Route 11,” Geldard said.


With all of those factors in mind, a lot of people in Canton have sparred about whether the Rich Road project should be here at all.

Some say it will ruin the open, rural landscape for locals and tourists. Some are scared about potential battery storage accidents. Some say this project is a good thing — that it’s a needed step in the fight against climate change. 

At Canton's town building, there are binders full of paperwork and information for public use about the Rich Road solar project. Photo: Catherine Wheeler

At Canton’s town building, there are binders full of paperwork and information for public use about the Rich Road solar project. Photo: Catherine Wheeler

For others, it’s about finding a balance.

“It’s complicated because we don’t want to be NIMBYs, like it’s ‘not in my backyard,’ right?” Shrady said. “Solar is important. We absolutely have to. It’s a climate crisis. We have to move that way. But I absolutely believe there’s a right way to do that and a wrong way to do that.”

Shrady said that means making sure EDF and the state are transparent and accountable for the people of Canton.

“It still can be done in a way that doesn’t bulldoze over a community and potentially negatively affected a community,” she said. 

On Tuesday, May 7, the state is hosting a public comment hearing at the Best Western in Canton at 6 pm. Canton Town Supervisor Mary Ann Ashley says the town has put a lot of hard work into its position, but Ashley wants community members to show up too.

“This is a critical point in the process,” Ashley said. “The public needs to come out in speak and pay attention to what’s going on in our local governments.”

After the hearing, the state will decide whether or not to approve the permit or make any changes. If the state recognizes significant concerns raised in the public comment period, it also has the option to ask for more work to be done.

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