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NIMBYism hits the Solar Revolution

Jan 11, 2011 6:50 am
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="200" caption="NIMBYism in Clifton Park... Image by Cindy Scultz of Times Union."][/caption]NIMBYism - that phenomenon, particularly acute in our Upstate realm, where one neighbor claims not wanting another's actions under the rubric, "Not in my back yard!," -- has raised its head again in our area. On the tails of community complaints, and then new laws outlawing older forms of outdoor wood furnaces that belched smoke through neighborhoods, the latest brouhahas are starting to focus on solar power, at least according to a story in today's January 11 Times Union. There, staff writer Tim O'Brien writes of a Clifton Park couple's decision to build a massive collection of solar panels in their yard, and the controversy their decision has sparked in the suburbs north of Albany.

As Beth and Todd Silaika expanded their already sizable home at 39 Addison Estates, they decided to reduce their impact on the environment. They added one of the largest residential solar arrays in the state. It measures 80 feet long by 20 feet tall and generates 30,240 watts a year.

For the Silaikas, it is a source of pride, a sign of their dedication to conservation and care for the planet. To some neighbors, however, one person's pride is another's eyesore. Diane Miller said the solar array is too big for the residential neighborhood and, ironically, blocks the sun from her back yard.

Town officials admit no regulations exist that govern building such a structure.

This one's a great look at the damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don't nature of our current society, which poet philosopher Robert Bly once described as being like kids without proper adult restraints... or models.

"It's definitely fair to say we were caught by surprise," Supervisor Phil Barrett said. "It's difficult. You've got the government giving these grants, you've got a definitive push in our culture to move to these types of installations, but at the same time I do feel there has to be some regulation. I don't think we want to ban them, but we want to have a process to get them approved."

Parents of six children, the Silaikas moved into their newly built home in 2005. It's a dream house, spacious with giant artworks of nature the couple proudly discuss. They recently decided to add a pool house and a detached garage, which generated additional controversy when it was partly built on town land and the town swapped other property for it.

The solar project began when the couple was making the other improvements and realized the impact all their building could have.

"Beth said: 'We've added all this space to the house, we probably should do something to give back to the environment,' " her husband said.

They talked to Mark Bomba of Alteris Renewables, who designed what is called a solar shed. Construction, begun in November, is now complete, though it will likely be about a week and a half before National Grid connects the meters and the system becomes operable.

"We believe it's the largest in New York state, and it might be the largest in the Northeast for a residential solar system," Bomba said. The state Energy Research and Development Authority says the system is one of the largest residential ones in the state but may not be the biggest.

By building the solar power generator, the couple expect to wipe out their $6,000 annual electricity bill and to sell some power back to the grid.

"At the end of the year, they will get paid back," Bomba said. "This is definitely an extreme installation. They are definitely going to get a payback."

There are environmental benefits too, Bomba said. The fuel the solar shed will conserve is the equivalent of taking 4.75 cars off the road for a year. It is equal to planting 15,400 trees over a 20-year period.

While Todd Silaikas says the going rate for selling back electricity isn't all that much -- you get paid only 1/15th of what you'd pay for the same amount of energy -- he said that is expected to improve.

He does not want to disclose how much the couple spent, but adds that the investment should be paid off in a dozen years.

Miller has a clear view of the back of the structure from her rear yard at 42 Michelle Drive. It's not what she ever expected.

"I am going to have to pay several thousands of dollars to conceal this," she said. "I knew there would be homes built behind me. I never expected this. I'm in favor of renewable energy, but I just think there should be a plan for it in a residential neighborhood."

Since no regulations were in place, there wasn't much the town could do when Alteris applied for a building permit, said Town Attorney Thomas McCarthy.

"It's not illegal so the code office reviewed it and issued the permit," he said. "There wasn't any way to tell them no."

The couple agreed to set the solar shed 50 feet from the property line rather than the minimum 10, he said, and they committed to adding mature blue spruces to shield the view.

"I wish they had been a little more sensitive going in but they have been responsive to us," McCarthy said. "I think they are trying to be reasonable."

Todd Silaika doesn't get the neighbors' complaints.

"We've paid as little attention to it as we could," he said. "There has to be a few people displeased by the way the solar panels look. If you're trying to do something positive for the environment, why complain? Personally, when you see it in sunlight, it looks like artwork to me."

"Most people have been positive about it because we're giving back," his wife added.

When work is complete, Bomba said, it will be less visible.

"Once the ground cover is in and they plant some trees and shrubbery around it, it will start to bleed into the environment," he said. "Right now, it looks like a construction site."