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Proposal For Solar Farm on Nevis Property Triggers Backlash Among Irvington Residents

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April 8, 2022

By Barrett Seaman–

Every few decades, it seems, alarm bells go off in Irvington about a threat, real or rumored, that Columbia University is going to sell, develop or otherwise disfigure the bucolic 68-acre plot of land that houses the university’s Nevis Laboratories and the Nevis Estate, built by James Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s son, and named after the island where he was born.

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In the 1990s, there was talk that the university would build a cluster housing complex for retired faculty, but that never materialized. There were discussions later about selling or leasing the northeast corner that houses the Columbia University Press warehouse as a site to relocate the village’s DPW facility. That too didn’t happen. Though nothing has changed in all this time, given the value of the property, which runs from Broadway to the Hudson River, the temptation to monetize Nevis has always loomed as a rational option for Columbia’s Board of Trustees.

Now comes a new threat to the integrity of Nevis: Siemens Industries Inc. has contracted with Columbia to build a five-acre solar array on the large open meadow that borders Ardsley Avenue West and Broadway. Skirting along its western edge is the Old Croton Aqueduct, which runs parallel to the Hudson through the village.

The deal is contingent on approval by Irvington’s governing boards. At the opening public hearing of the Planning Board on April 6, Leslie Snyder, an attorney representing Siemens and Columbia, said that the purpose of the project was “in furtherance of Columbia University’s sustainability plan as well as New York State’s clean energy and climate policy…as well as the Village of Irvington’s own clean energy policy.” The goal, she said, was “to reduce the University’s amount of fossil fuel use.”

Reaction to the news of the solar farm by Nevis’s immediate neighbors in the Ardsley Park section of the village was swift and lopsidedly negative. Phrases like “strongly object,” “strongest possible objection,” “vehement objection,” and “shocked and disappointed” characterized the more-than-a-dozen early entries into the Planning Board’s record of comments. One letter, from Charles and Meghan Myers, who live on Hancock Place roughly half a block from Nevis, posited that “if the Planning Board has ONE purpose, it is to stop nonsense like this from destroying the character of our neighborhood and values of our homes.”

Brad and Erin Wilford, current residents of Brooklyn who only recently bought a home directly opposite the meadow and plan to move into it with their two young children within two months, wrote to say they were attracted to Irvington in the first place in part by “stories from residents about how strictly the Village Planning Board fights to preserve” the village’s aesthetic. “Had we known a project of this magnitude could be considered by the Village of Irvington, we would very likely have chosen a different neighborhood to move our family.”

Before launching into their objections, almost all of the opponents of the plan stipulated that they are in favor of alternative, clean energy. However, only four of the letter writers and one resident who testified at the April 6 hearing voiced support for a solar farm on Nevis. Anne Jaffe Holmes, a resident of Ferris Street in the village and an environmental activist, told board members that the solar array was “a tremendous gift to the people of Irvington…a living lab.”

Some of the objections, while legitimate, could be fairly categorized as NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard): safety, especially for young children and pets for whom the field has long been a playground; ground water contamination, impingement on the Aqueduct, a protected parkland; glare from the panels; possible noise pollution; danger to native habitat (deer), and the big one—negative impact on property values.

Other objections—ones that Columbia and Siemens will likely find the most challenging in their dealings with the Planning Board—focus on compliance and purpose. Christopher and Elizabeth Lando, who live right across Broadway from the meadow and wrote a five-page, single-spaced document detailing a range of objections, argued that the proposed solar equipment is not permitted under village code. While Irvington permits domestic solar installations, its code specifies that it does so “provided that it is used only to provide power for use by owners, lessees, tenants, residents or other occupants of the premises on which it is erected.”

Columbia’s Nevis campus is home to a faculty of fewer than 20 professors and a few dozen graduate students who perform high energy physics and bioengineering experiments in a small cluster of buildings behind the old Hamilton mansion (now used mostly for conferences and some student housing). Lino Sciarretta, an attorney representing the Ardsley Park Property Owners Association (APPOA), asserted at the April 6 Planning Board hearing that the five-acre solar farm proposed by Siemens would be capable of producing enough electricity to power 1,000 homes.

That prompted Planning Board member Michael Smith to ask what Columbia intended to do with all that power. The university considers Nevis to be part of its main Morningside Heights campus, along with its Manhattanville campus and the Baker Field Athletic Complex. Were the applicants construing those distant campuses as a single entity?Attorney Snyder did not directly respond to the question, which the board is almost certain to pursue in subsequent hearings. If Columbia intends to provide power to any of those outlying facilities, they would be in violation of Irvington code—unless they were granted a variance.

Another question board chairman Cesare Manfredi signaled his interest in pursuing is what the financial relationship is between Columbia and Siemens. Will the German engineering giant profit from the distribution of electricity or from just the construction? If Siemens and Columbia profit from ongoing operations of a facility owned by a tax-exempt university, some residents wonder how that might comport with Columbia’s non-profit status?

The other question likely to be probed in ongoing hearings is why the two arrays couldn’t be somewhere else on the available 61.5-acre property. The prominence of the arrays (see graphic) in an open meadow at the southern gateway to Irvington is a key element of community resistance.

A graphic depicting the two solar arrays, as seen from Ardsley Avenue West looking north


Why Siemens chose to site it here is apparent: it is treeless, thus open, and sloped to the south for maximum sunlight. But residents and Planning Board members will be asking why it couldn’t be in one of the open patches further to the north and west, out of sightlines for homeowners. Most of these other sites would require tree removal, which means another layer of compliance. They would also most likely call for deployment of something less than the 80,000 square feet of panels currently proposed. Says Chet Kerr, a proximate neighbor and member of APPOA’s board: “There are other areas on the Nevis campus that could work and work well for this project, thereby meeting Columbia’s goals while minimizing the impact on the nearby homeowners. I would strongly support that if it was done carefully and thoughtfully.”

The need for care and thought suggests that these hearings are likely to continue for months.

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