Three members of the Riverhead Town Board have called a special meeting for Wednesday afternoon to act on an application for a 22.9 megawatt solar farm on 198 acres in Calverton.
Board members James Wooten, Jodi Giglio and Tim Hubbard plan to adopt a resolution declaring the town board lead agency for purposes of environmental review and issuing a negative declaration under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) — meaning that the board concludes the proposal will not have any significant adverse impacts on the environment and no further environmental review is required.
The application by LI Solar Generation, a joint venture of NextEra Energy Resources and National Grid, seeks to develop the commercial solar energy facility on two industrially zoned parcels on the west side of Edwards Avenue. One of the parcels is the 82.5-acre former Calverton Links golf course, where Long Island Sports Park is now located. The other parcel is 115.2 acres of mostly farmland.
Council members Hubbard and Wooten both said the negative declaration under SEQRA was the recommendation of planning and building administrator Jefferson Murphree.
“There was no clearing to be done. There was nothing that was really a heavy lift,” Wooten said in a phone interview today.
“I think it’s been ready for quite a while,” he said. “Laura [Jens-Smith] held it up because I think she was trying to negotiate a community benefit agreement,” he said, referring to the type of agreement entered by the town with solar energy producer sPower, in which sPower agreed to pay the town $1.05 million, with the funding earmarked for certain types of community benefits.
“They weren’t biting at that apple,” Wooten said.
“Absolutely not true,” Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said of Wooten’s claim that she “held it up.”
Jens-Smith said Murphree did not complete the paperwork needed for the town to make a decision until Oct. 29. “And they’re putting this through at an emergency meeting with no public discussion?”
Hubbard contradicted Wooten’s statement about a community benefit agreement. He said town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz is negotiating a an agreement with the applicant. “He’s working on it,” Hubbard said.
LI Solar Generation’s site plan and special permit applications, including a long-form environmental assessment form, were filed with the town in September 2018. A planning department staff report was completed by planning aide Greg Bergmann in April. After a town board work session meeting with representatives of LI Solar Generation and its attorney, Stephen Losquadro, the town board classified the application as a “Type 1” action under SEQRA.
The application requires a special permit from the town board and site plan approval by the planning board. The planning board initially sought to contest the town board’s declaration of “lead agency” status — which determines which agency is responsible for “coordinated review” under SEQRA. But the planning board decided not to seek lead agency status after planning board chairman Stan Carey met with the supervisor about the application.
“Our board really wanted to have lead agency since we did all the past solar projects,” Carey said in a phone interview today. “I spoke to the town supervisor and explained our concerns,” he said.
“She explained that the town board always takes lead agency on special permit applications. The planning board decided it would not have looked good that we were arguing with the town board over this,” Carey said.
Disputes over lead agency are decided by the commissioner of the State DEC. “We didn’t want to air our differences on the state level, so we backed off,” Carey said.
“Our concern was that these solar developments were happening so fast in one region in the Town of Riverhead and we felt the town didn’t really have a long-term plan,” Carey said today. “We were concerned about Riverhead becoming the solar capital of Long Island without any plan in place.”
Carey said the planning board remains concerned that the Calverton substation which these solar facilities will feed into can be expanded by LIPA without any town approvals — allowing for even more acreage in that area to be used for solar energy production.
“We don’t know what the capacity of that substation is or how much capacity remains,” Carey said. “The planning board is very concerned about the loss of farmland to solar production and the impacts that will have on agriculture and businesses that support agriculture,” he said. “It just hasn’t been analyzed.”
Hubbard explained the board majority’s conclusion that no further environmental review is necessary because the applicant “provided all the information up front so they wouldn’t have to do that [an environmental impact statement]. They saw what sPower had to do and they came in prepared,” he said.
sPower has two commercial solar energy facilities underway in Calverton. The first, “Riverhead Solar 1” is a 20 megawatt facility on 110 acres in Calverton was required to prepare an environmental impact statement. “Riverhead Solar 2,” is a proposed 36 megawatt facility that is currently under review by the New York State Department of Public Service. All proposed solar energy facilities larger than 25 megawatts are required to be reviewed by the state agency.
Jens-Smith said the LI Solar Generation proposal is just two megawatts shy of requiring review by the state. “And that’s a very rigorous review,” she said.
Jens-Smith said it seems counterintuitive that a proposal for a 22.9-megawatt facility could be determined up-front to not have any potential significant adverse impacts. She noted that “Riverhead Solar 1” is a smaller facility — 20 MW — impacting less land than the LI Solar Generation proposal and the developer was required to prepare an environmental impact statement. A 13-megawatt solar facility proposed by STR Systems received a negative declaration.
Councilwoman Catherine Kent said she thinks the town board should discuss the SEQRA determination at a work session before making the decision.
Hubbard said the applicant is facing a Nov. 17 deadline with LIPA.
Giglio did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The special meeting will be held tomorrow, (Nov. 13) at 1:30 p.m. at Riverhead Town Hall.
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