The Sutter and Sterlington solar farms on Edwards Avenue were the first large facilities in Calverton. Three more, much larger facilities are currently in the pipeline. Photo: Borrego Solar/sPower.

There’s a showdown afoot over solar energy development in Riverhead.

Members of the Riverhead Planning Board believe there’s “too much, too fast” when it comes to the development of solar farms in Calverton, where more than 500 acres of land have already been targeted for solar power facilities that together will generate 88.2 MW of electricity.

Expressing their sense that the town should impose a moratorium on the development of solar generation facilities until a new comprehensive land use plan is completed, a majority of the planning board voted last night to seek “lead agency” status in the latest solar facility permit application, a proposal for a 22.9 MW facility on 198 acres east of Edwards Avenue.

But the town board is already seeking “lead agency” status in the review of that application, made by LI Solar Generation, a joint venture of Nextera Energy Resources and National Grid. The town board voted at its May 22 meeting to assume “lead agency” status and, as required by law, notified other “involved agencies,” including the planning board, of its decision.

Lead agency status confers significant power on the reviewing agency to control the progress and even the fate of an application. The lead agency coordinates review of an action under the State Environmental Quality Review Act — and so controls the review process and progress of an application. The lead agency determines the scope of environmental review, holds public hearings, determines whether an applicant’s environment assessment is sufficient and issues the SEQRA “findings statement,” which sets the stage for approval or rejection of an action.

Planning Board Chairman Stan Carey asked board members to request lead agency status, noting that the planning board has been the lead agency in the other commercial solar applications subject to town approval.

“I this this board is best suited to be lead agency,” Carey said. “We’ve done the others. We’ve learned a lot.”

When two involved agencies request lead agency status, the State Department of Environmental Conservation resolves the dispute.

The planning board has jurisdiction over subdivisions and site plans, while the town board has jurisdiction over special permits. The proposed facility will require both a special permit from the town board and site plan approval from the planning board.

The planning board agreed to have Carey speak with Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith about the matter before sending a letter to the DEC requesting its determination.

“I have a general concern over how fast they are coming in and how many are being approved in one area of the town,” Carey said of the commercial solar farm applications.

Carey said he is also concerned about the potential future expansion of the existing PSEG substation on Edwards Avenue that these facilities are connecting to, since that would encourage even more solar facility development in the same area. He said questions whether the town would have any jurisdiction, through the site plan review process, over an expansion of the substation.

“It’s just happening way too fast, before anybody can digest what’s going to happen,” Carey said. He said he is concerned all the solar energy facilities in the Edwards Avenue corridor will detract from the town’s rural character.

Member Joe Baier proposed asking the town board to put a solar moratorium in place. That would allow the town to look at the big picture in the context of the new master plan it intends to develop. The town board this week authorized a request for proposals from planning firms for a new comprehensive land use plan.

Baier said a moratorium would halt things on the state level.

The largest solar farm proposal currently pending is not subject to town review and approval at all. The 36 MW Riverhead Solar Two proposal is under the jurisdiction of the State Department of Public Service since it is larger than 25 MW. See NY DPS file for Case No. 17-F-0655

Carey polled the board and four of the five members supported asking for a moratorium.

Member Ed Densieski, who voted against seeking lead agency status, also said he opposed the idea of a moratorium. He said he favors the solar energy facilities, which, though they are “probably not the highest and best use of the land” and are “possible eyesores,” have positive benefits that outweigh the negatives.

“They don’t put kids in the schools, they don’t add traffic to our roads and they produce green, renewable energy,” Densieski said. “The land is zoned industrial. People have property rights,” he said. “If it’s zoned that way they have the right to do it.”

After the meeting, Carey said he is worried that the town board may be motivated to approve the large solar projects because of “community benefit” funds paid by the developer to the town — significant, lump-sum payments that are enticing to the cash-strapped town government. The town board on May 22 approved a community benefit agreement with sPower that adds $1.05 million to the town’s coffers, earmarked for specific projects and purposes.

“The reason we’re seeking lead agency is because [solar facilities] are allowed by special permit now,” Jens-Smith said this morning. “The town board always seeks lead agency when there’s a town board special permit required,” she said.

“It doesn’t take the planning board out of it. They’re still an involved agency and participate in the scoping and review,” she said. ” I welcome the opportunity to listen to their concerns.”

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.