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Stony Point: Catholic Retreat Center Looks to the Sun for Savings

The Marian Shrine is looking toward the heavens to reduce its energy bills.

Father Jim McKenna walked down a rocky path on a recent weekday in the woods behind the Mary Help of Christians chapel on the Catholic retreat center’s property.

The 66-year-old director scrambled over boulders that blocked the path. He then walked along the edge of the shrine’s 160-acre property into a field of shin-high grass and unobstructed sunlight – although the skies overhead were slightly dimmed by a partial solar eclipse.

It is that field and a portion of the nearby woods that a company wants to lease for 25 years in order to install a solar panel facility, McKenna said.

Although a proposal has not been submitted to the town, McKenna said the project was a 21st-century opportunity to reduce the retreat center’s energy bills and generate renewable energy on its unused land.

“It’s extra income coming in for 25 years and I’m just planning for the future. … We’re environmentally conscious because we feel the world needs to conserve energy and to use other means that are out there,” McKenna said.

But any plan for a facility of solar panels mounted on the grounds is at a standstill as Stony Point explores creating a local law to permit them.

Town Supervisor Jim Monaghan said he supported solar panel projects as long as they fit in with the character of a neighborhood and meet other criteria.

“We’ve seen in other communities where these have been positive,” Monaghan said. “To go with a clean, green energy source is something that we would welcome.”

Tax exemption on the line

Reduced bills come with tradeoffs for the Marian Shrine.

Green Street Solar Power LCC approached the retreat center a year ago seeking to lease more than two-dozen acres for a solar panel facility there, McKenna said.

Mia Behm, a spokeswoman for the Bronx-based company, said in an email the company was proposing a $4-million, 1,800-kilowatt solar farm with 5,100 solar panels.

The plan would provide energy savings for the retreat center of 30 percent a year, equating to approximately $30,000, McKenna said. The project also would contribute funds to a foundation related to supporting the order’s elderly priests.

The Marian Shrine’s property includes one of the few large unused portions of land in Stony Point, Behm said.

“This project will not only save the Marian Shrine money on their utility expenses but also creates an additional revenue stream to help fund the many services the Marian Shrine offers to the Stony Point and Rockland County community,” Behm said.

In addition, the solar panel farm could generate enough energy to power between 200 and 300 homes annually, Behm said.

Green Street will give Stony Point residents an opportunity to purchase that power, which Behm estimated could reduce their current electric bills between 15-20 percent. The company would donate a small playground in Stony Point as part of the project.

However, the commercial use of the land would result in the shrine losing tax-exempt status on that portion of its property.

“It’s basically a commercial entity at that point that becomes taxable,” Monaghan said.

The property is assessed at approximately $90,000, Monaghan said, which would generate upwards of $36,000 a year in town taxes.

McKenna said Green Street Solar Power would be responsible for those taxes.

There are no solar panel facilities of this type in Stony Point. Elsewhere in the county, a solar panel field was built a few years ago in Clarkstown that covers 13 acres of a former landfill.

Although companies had reached out to Stony Point about installing solar panel developments in the past, it wasn’t until the Marian Shrine’s proposal that the Town Board began writing up regulations for them. Roof-mounted solar panels are already permitted.

The town’s top priority for any solar panel facility, Monaghan said, was to ensure a buffer zone to minimize the view from surrounding properties.

The proposed law, which is on the town’s website, also seeks to prevent the culling of large swaths of woodland to make way for solar panel fields. Additional criteria being considered include requiring fencing, acreage minimums, and other approvals.

But even if the proposed law passes, it’s not expected to set off a gold rush for the sun in Stony Point.

Vacant private land suitable for solar panel developments is not plentiful in northern Rockland, and any town-owned land is already used as parkland or sports fields, Monaghan said.

The town also is exploring whether to tax solar panel fields as a source of revenue, but those considerations are not included in the proposed law.

McKenna said the solar panel project was not a critical lifeline for the retreat center, which is located in both Stony Point and Haverstraw.

Unlike other Catholic congregations in the region that have consolidated and closed in recent years, the retreat is financially stable and its church’s pews were filled each week, McKenna said.

The Marian Shrine will be required to seek town approval for the project if the proposed law passes, which will determine how much of the vacant field can be used, the size of a buffer with the surrounding properties, and how many trees can be felled.

McKenna said he expected the project would include a buffer of trees and other shrubs between the field and the adjacent homes on Don Bosco and Filors lanes.

But resident Anthony Mallozzi, who lives next to the fallow field on Don Bosco Lane, said he wanted the property to remain undeveloped.

“I’m not for it,” Mallozzi said. “I enjoy sitting out on my deck; nobody bothers me. I see a nice field. I don’t really want to look at solar panels.”

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