A resolution that would end environmental review of a proposed 22.9-megawatt solar power production facility in Calverton was tabled Wednesday afternoon at a special town board meeting called by three board members to adopt the resolution.
Councilman Tim Hubbard — who with council members James Wooten and Jodi Giglio, called the special meeting — moved to table the resolution after realizing that he had not seen the town planning department’s assessment of potential environmental impacts of the project prior to the special meeting.
That assessment takes the form of Part 2 of the Environmental Assessment Form, known as an EAF, and is the basis for determining whether or not a proposed action should be subjected to further environmental review. Part 2 of the EAF for the new solar project was dated Oct. 29 and planning aide Greg Bergman said yesterday he sent it to the town board last week.
But Hubbard and other board members said they had not yet seen the EAF Part 2 document. The document was not posted on the town’s website.
The board’s Republican majority called the special meeting to adopt a resolution issuing a negative declaration under the State Environmental Quality Review Act for the proposal by LI Solar Generation, a joint venture of NextEra Energy Resources and National Grid.
The applicant proposes to build a 22.9-megawatt solar power generation facility on approximately 198 acres on the west side of Edwards Avenue. Electricity generated by the facility would feed into a LIPA substation on the west side of Edwards Avenue.
A negative declaration reflects a conclusion that a proposed action will have no significant adverse impacts on the environment and therefore does not require the preparation of an environmental impact statement. A positive declaration reflects a conclusion that a project will have significant adverse impacts on the environment and therefore does require the preparation of an environmental impact statement.
The board majority’s move to end environmental review — and thus clear the project to move forward — drew searing criticism from Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith, who objected to the measure without the board having seen the completed EAF or comments submitted by other involved agencies, which the board, as lead agency, was required by law to solicit.
Confusion prevailed on the question of whether or not Part 2 had been distributed to the town board prior to the meeting. Bergman said he distributed last week by giving it to “one of the councilwomen.” He did not identify which councilwoman that was and said he didn’t know what happened with it after that.
Hubbard asked to see the document so he could determine whether he had seen it prior to the meeting.
Giglio insisted that the “neg dec was ready to go in September” but the supervisor blocked it from moving forward, she said.
“Why are you holding it up?” Giglio asked Jens-Smith.
Giglio provided RiverheadLOCAL with an email written to her by the applicant’s attorney, Stephen Losquadro.
“The Town repeatedly was informed that the issuance of a Neg Dec by the end of October was, and remains, essential to the viability of the project so as to meet timelines set by LIPA,” Losquadro wrote on Oct. 16. “In fact, we are now informed that LIPA has put LI Solar’s project on the November Board calendar, which makes the vote of the Neg Dec resolution now even more essential.”
Losquadro wrote that planning department staff had assured him that a negative declaration was ready to be approved and he believed it would be acted on at the Oct. 16 regular town board meeting.
“This matter has been vetted for many months and Planning has told us that it can and should go forward,” Losquadro wrote to Giglio at her Bennett Enterprises email address. In the Oct. 16 email, Losquadro told Giglio that chief of staff John Marafino had contacted PSEG to request a “courtesy” extension of time.
During a contentious discussion, Giglio told Jens-Smith her office had requested the extension and said the resolution would be voted on at the Nov. 6 meeting.
“I did not say that,” Jens-Smith said.
“I have emails in writing. You can say he’s a liar -” Giglio told her.
“You can say whatever you want, Jodi, it’s not true,” Jens-Smith answered.
In the Oct. 16 email, though Losquadro complains about Marafino requesting an extension from PSEG without talking to the applicant, the attorney does not say anything about the Nov. 6 town board meeting. Losquadro did say in the email that the project would be on the agenda of the November LIPA board meeting. LIPA’s November board meeting was held yesterday, but the NextEra project was not listed on the agenda.
As Jens-Smith and Giglio argued yesterday over the procedure that was followed, Wooten twice said “Girls, girls,” to them, drawing a comment from Councilwoman Catherine Kent, who sits between Wooten and the supervisor on the dais. Her comment was inaudible, but Wooten was heard responding, “It’s not sexist.”
Jens-Smith pressed building and planning administrator Jefferson Murphree on when he filled out Part 2 of the EAF for this application. He acknowledged that the form was dated Oct. 29. But he also downplayed the significance of the form.
“The final paperwork has to be completed,” he said. “But all that does is include what staff’s review and analysis has been. Staff review and analysis has begun on solar farms long before this. For me it has begun seven years ago when I first started working for the town,” Murprhee said.
Murphree said the planning department staff has never recommended a positive declaration on any of the four solar farm applications it has reviewed — including the Riverhead Solar 1 application, which the planning board ultimately issued a positive declaration on, requiring an environmental impact statement of the applicant.
“And it was controversial whether or not to pos-dec that,” he said. “It was a split vote of the planning board at that time.”
Murphree said NextEra came in and did their due diligence.
“NextEra looks at the EIS for Riverhead Solar 1 and they presented all their information up front that sPower [the Riverhead Solar 1 applicant] did not,” Murphree said.
“So I’ve reviewed four of these so far. My review of this is based on four applications. I have a pretty good idea after seven years of analysis, of reviewing solar farms,” Murphree said.
“All [Part 2] did is summarize all of our analysis,” he said.
“Should it be provided to the body that is going to make an informed decision on this?” the supervisor asked.
“And we did,” he answered, acknowledging that it was not provided to the board before the Oct. 29 date it bears.
Murphree also acknowledged that he had not filled out Part 3 of the EAF form that is promulgated by the State Department of Environmental Conservation. He said Part 3 was the negative declaration expressed in the resolution then on the table.
“We need legal reasoning for doing this,” Kent said. “We haven’t had any discussion. I don’t think we should railroad this through.”
Giglio reiterated her position that the negative declaration resolution was prepared since the third week of September and should have already been acted on.
“Jodi, you can say whatever you want, but you have to have this EAF Part 2 to be able to make a determination of significance. This was prepared on Oct. 29. You can’t make that determination until this paperwork is completed,” Jens-Smith said. “And it was not completed till the end of October.”
At that point, Hubbard moved to table the resolution, saying after looking at the EAF Part 2 provided to him at his request during the meeting, he determined that he had not seen it before.
“We’ve never seen that,” Giglio interjected.
“I suggest let common sense prevail, let heads cool off. I would like to make a motion to table this so we can get all he paperwork we need to make the decision properly,” Hubbard said, adding an apology to Murphree and Bergmann who he said had not been treated properly.
The idea of issuing a negative declaration also came under fire by members of the community.
Ardent solar power opponent Ed Graham of Manorville urged the board to set aside the resolution and do its due diligence on the environmental and health hazards of solar panels.
Graham said solar panels contain “toxic chemicals that will leach out when the panels degrade.” He challenged the board to research the issue thoroughly before acting.
The panels contain lead, cadmium, and other toxic chemicals, Graham said. Graham operates a website called stopthesolarfarms.com and he said data and detailed information can be found there.
“When they are decommissioned what will we do with them?” he asked. They are hazardous waste, he said, and municipalities will be stuck with a huge disposal problem when the panels grow old.
The chemicals used in the panels are cancer-causing agents, Graham said. “Do you know what the rates are for thyroid, kidney and other types of cancer in the community? If you don’t how will you know how much those rates increase because of these facilities?”
Graham said relying on solar power companies to decommission and dispose of the panels is foolish. He asked the board how they could be sure the solar companies will still be in business to complete the decommissioning plans they’ve been required to file.
Former councilwoman and longtime former planning board member and chairperson Barbara Blass of Jamesport questioned the town’s review process for the application.
“I am shocked and frankly appalled that this application, which was submitted last year, a Type 1 action under New York State thresholds and the Riverhead Town Code is receiving a ‘neg dec’ without any opportunity for public input until now,” Blass said.
She complained that scant information about the application was made available to the public, noting that the documents available online did not include the town’s portion of the environmental assessment form, in which the town assesses potential impacts. That document is what explains the negative declaration. How can the public comment on the resolution without having access to that document, Blass asked.
Blass also noted that the applicant’s project narrative document refers to several attached appendices that are not attached to the narrative document posted on the town’s website.
Blass went through the applicant’s environmental impact form point by point and questioned board members about how each issue was being addressed — including archaeological resources, the loss of active farmland, the capacity of the Edwards Avenue substation that would handle electricity generated by the proposed facility and the loss of recreation opportunities. The project site is the current location of L.I. Sports Park.
“I do not believe the town has identified all the relevant environmental impacts, thoroughly analyzed them and provided sufficient reasoning and justification to support a determination of non-significance,” Blass said.
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