Photo: BusinessWire

Riverhead Town is considering a 12-month moratorium on new commercial solar energy production facilities.

The town board is expected to set a Sept. 1 public hearing on the proposal during its meeting on Tuesday.

The moratorium would prohibit the town planning board and town board from processing any land use applications involving commercial systems for 12 months from the effective date of the proposed local law.

Two pending applications to establish solar energy production facilities in Calverton would be excluded from the moratorium: sPower’s Riverhead Solar 2, a 36 megawatt facility now under review by the state, and NextEra’s Long Island Solar Generation, a 22.9 megawatt facility currently under review by the Town of Riverhead.

Also excluded from the moratorium are any applications for commercial solar energy systems submitted in response to a request for proposals made by the town board, and any applications for commercial solar energy systems involving property in a designated urban renewal area — such as the Enterprise Park at Calverton.

The Riverhead Town Code allows for the siting of commercial solar production facilities in several zoning use districts including, by special permit, lands within the Industrial C zoning use district in Calverton.

Approved and pending commercial solar production facility applications in the Town of Riverhead encompass approximately 660 acres in Calverton, with “a large portion of that 660 acres being lands that are now or were in the past used for agricultural production.”

The Calverton hamlet in the vicinity of Edwards Avenue is an attractive location for commercial solar energy facilities because of a LIPA substation on Edwards Avenue, which provides connectivity between the power generation facilities and the utility’s electric grid, town officials say.

In addition to the two pending applications, which together encompass 488 acres, the area around Edwards Avenue in Calverton is already home to three operational commercial solar production facilities, sited on a total of 168 acres and together producing 26.6 megawatts of electricity.

The moratorium will allow the town to complete the comprehensive plan update the town board authorized in January, Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said.

Councilwoman Catherine Kent today questioned the rationale for excluding Nextera’s L.I. Solar Generation proposal from the moratorium.

“I’ve expressed concerns about solar in our town because we do more than our share here,” Kent said. “We have more solar here than than any other municipality, I believe, on Long Island and possibly New York. And they all go into one zip code,” she said.

“One, they’re well along the process, even though they don’t have approvals. They’ve been submitted to us for a considerable amount of time,” town attorney Robert Kozakiewicz said.

“Legally we have to exclude the projects that have extensive work in progress,” Aguiar said.

Kent disputed that claim. “We do not have to exempt Nextera. They’re not vested yet. They they don’t have approvals and they do not have to be exempt and that’s a big project, 22.9 megawatts,” Kent said.

Both Kent and Aguiar voted in February against issuing a negative declaration under the State Environmental Quality Review Act on the Nextera project. The negative declaration, which was passed by the board in a 3-2 vote, allowed the project to proceed without an environmental impact statement.

Today Kent noted that although Councilman Tim Hubbard voted in favor of the negative declaration, he stated at the time he did not favor the project and would not be voting to approve it.

The supervisor objected to Kent bringing up Hubbard’s prior statement, which she said was inappropriate to discuss at the work session because the board was not taking a vote at the work session.

“That’s not a proper way of conducting a work session, a public work session,” Aguiar said. “At any time, anyone can can decide which way they’re going to vote. So let’s keep the voting to when you have to vote, and let’s have a healthy conversation in this regard.”

Kent said she was not trying to “call out” the councilman on his vote but was trying to bring up a new state statute that could take the decision on Nextera away from the town altogether, she said.

In April, the State Legislature, as part of the 2020-2021 budget legislation, adopted a new law that allows companies proposing major renewable energy production facilities — projects of 20 megawatts or more — to opt into review by a state agency instead of a local government.

Currently, electric generation projects of 25 megawatts or more are required to be reviewed by the electric generation siting board in the State Department of Public Service. The Riverhead Solar 2 proposal by sPower is under review by the state, and not the town, for that reason.

That review process, under Article 10 of the State Public Service Law, has been criticized as cumbersome and time consuming. The legislature adopted a new law this spring to streamline and expedite the approval process for renewable energy projects, including solar generation facilities, to help the state meet its goals for a minimum of 70% renewable energy sources by 2030 and an emission-free electric grid by 2040.

Kent stressed that she is “not against renewable energy” but is concerned with the concentration of solar facilities in the Town of Riverhead and worried that the town will lose its regulatory authority over Nextera under the new review process.

The applicant has the ability to opt-in to the state review process under the new law.

“If that happens, then this moratorium will not stop that,” Kozakiewicz told Kent.

“Nextera’s been in the process for a long period of time. Nextera has been trying to get a hearing for a long period of time. So there is a concern about whether there’s been undue delay” by the town, which could give rise to legal liability, he said. His concern led to the decision to exclude them from the moratorium, Kozakiewicz said, “given the fact that they have been trying to get a public hearing since August of last year.”

Hubbard, who said he did not object to Kent’s characterization of his previous comments about his opposition to the Nextera application, said he agreed with Kent but believes that to capture the Nextera application in the moratorium, would lead to “litigation down the road,” which is something he said the town should avoid.

“When solar companies can start showing me that our residents are directly benefitting from their using of our land, my thoughts about solar may change,” Hubbard said. “That’s my biggest concern and my second concern is with the decommissioning and where these products go 20, 30 years from now — and what are we doing to the future of our planet? That’s a big concern for me also. So that’s that’s where I stand on this,” Hubbard said.

“So often in our town we cave into things,” Kent said, lamenting that the town backs down, she said, when threatened with potential litigation.

“They have an investment and they’ve spent quite a bit of time, a lot of planning. And when you do do a moratorium, you’ll need to exclude the projects that were already — that had substantially been in progress. And that’s the reality of it,” Aguiar said.

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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.