Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Six Flags Has a Plan for a Solar Energy Farm. It Would Kill 19,000 Trees

Six Flags Great Adventure, New Jersey’s epicenter of thrill rides, wants to build the state’s biggest solar farm to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. First, though, 19,000 trees will have to go.

The state environmental-protection department objects to the plan by Six Flags Entertainment Corp., saying such construction is better suited for land once used by industry, or atop warehouses and parking lots. So do conservationists, who sued May 4 seeking to prevent almost 100 acres of wetlands and animal habitats from becoming a 21.9-megawatt solar farm.

As President Barack Obama pushes for 80 percent of electricity to come from “clean” sources by 2035, solar projects are meeting community resistance and environmental pitfalls.

In New Jersey, the most densely populated U.S. state, it’s the loss of treasured open space. In Massachusetts, it’s residents who fear construction on a closed landfill’s thin clay cap. In California, it’s birds and bats zapped by reflected rays.

“Whether it’s in a forest that’s clear cut, or in a desert or on a prairie, if we’re doing it in a habitat that has any ecological value, it doesn’t make any sense,” said Janine Blaeloch, founder of Western Lands Project, a Seattle-based group that opposes solar projects on public property.

California, with the most renewable energy in the U.S., is under a mandate set by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown to draw 33 percent of power from such sources as wind and solar by 2020. The drive to counteract climate change, though, has downsides.

Birds Zapped

In the Mojave Desert, Ivanpah, the world’s largest solar-thermal electricity plant, is disrupting a tortoise habitat and fatally singeing birds with mirrors. On a wider scale, as the California Energy Commission considers a renewables-planning outline for the region, some local governments are questioning whether they’d reap economic benefits. Letters on the plan from Inyo and Kern counties cite potential damage to agriculture, tribal and recreation lands.

“We urge the state to include small-scale solar (such as roof-top), geothermal, wind and other small-scale renewable energy development in calculating its progress in meeting its targets,” Matt Kingsley, chairman of the Inyo County supervisors, wrote to the commission Feb. 17.

Even projects nowhere on the scale of those in California can be mired in challenges.

In April, officials in Amherst, Massachusetts, the hometown of poet Emily Dickinson that’s 90 miles (145 kilometers) west of Boston, abandoned four years of solar planning. Residents had fought back with a lawsuit stating that the site, a 53-acre capped landfill, was suited more to recreation.

State Approval

In New Jersey, conservationists who typically support solar have come out against Six Flags in Jackson, about 70 miles from Manhattan in heavy woods. The array, which would supply as much as 98 percent of the park’s needs, received clearance from the New Jersey public utilities board.

“This is an awful precedent,” Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, a New Brunswick-based lobbying group that’s not part of the litigation, said by telephone. “Suddenly, every forest is going to be a potential solar installation.”

In the lawsuit filed in Superior Court in Ocean County, four environmental organizations, led by Long Branch-based Clean Water Action, claim the project runs counter to municipal land-use law and “will require the wholesale destruction and clearing of the existing forest.” The habitat includes nesting bald eagles and other birds, the northern pine snake and wetlands crucial to fresh water supplies, the suit states.

Big Wheel

The complaint, which names the Jackson Township council and planning board as well as Six Flags and Bedminster-based KDC Solar LLC, seeks to have local-government decisions voided. Mayor Michael Reina didn’t respond to a telephone message left at his township office.

Republican Governor Chris Christie, whose administration appointed the commissioners for environmental protection and public utilities -- which are split on the project -- didn’t have a comment on where he stands, spokesman Kevin Roberts said by e-mail. Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the environmental protection department, said the agency has limited jurisdiction in the matter.

Six Flags Entertainment, based in Grand Prairie, Texas, operates 18 theme parks in the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Its New Jersey site had 2.8 million visitors in 2013, making it the state’s biggest amusement park and the continent’s 19th largest, according to a study by the Themed Entertainment Association, a Burbank, California-based trade group.

‘Good Custodian’

In a telephone interview before the suit was filed, John Fitzgerald, president of the Jackson Six Flags, said the company “looks upon itself as being a good custodian of the environment.” Its safari exhibit, he said, is home to endangered and threatened species, and the solar plan won’t affect the eagles.

“The single greatest threat to the environment is the changes in the environment due to CO2 emissions,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s going to be trade-offs.”

An alternative, building the array atop parking lots, was rejected because it would reduce space for cars, concerts and charity events, Fitzgerald said. The plan calls for a forester to supervise the planting of 26,000 trees, or 7,000 more than the number to be cut down, he said.

That’s no comfort to state environmental regulators.

“We’re stating emphatically that we don’t think this is the right way to produce solar, and we’re still hoping they see the light,” Hajna said. “We’re putting these solar farms on top of warehouses and big-box stores, and looking for wise solar installation.”

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