Controversy over the proliferation of commercial solar facilities in Calverton ratcheted up this month, after new details emerged about NextEra Energy’s proposed 22.9 MW solar facility on 198 acres west of Edwards Avenue.
NextEra submitted drawings and information to the planning department last month that conflicted with information in the environmental assessment form it filed in 2018. The new information revealed structures more than twice the height of the maximum height stated on the applicant’s environmental assessment form submitted to the town in 2018 — even though the new drawings submitted last month bear dates going back to 2018.
The proposed facility is currently in site plan review before the planning board.
A split town board in December approved a special permit for the facility, but the town board now has another decision to make: Should it reopen its environmental review of the plan in light of the new information about the height of proposed structures?
The structures will occupy a nearly 13,000-square-feet area about 100 feet off Edwards Avenue — the location also caught town officials off-guard — and will have visual impacts the town board did not consider when it decided in February 2020 the project would have no adverse impacts and could move forward without extensive environmental review.
Since the decision to issue a “negative declaration” under the State Environmental Quality Review Act — allowing the project to move forward without extensive review — was based on inaccurate statements in the applicant’s environmental assessment form, the town board must decide how to handle the new information.
Should the town board amend its record of decision to reflect the new information and amend the negative declaration to reflect mitigation of impacts by a newly submitted landscaping plan a town planning aide called “robust?” Or should it rescind the special permit and the negative declaration and start over?
Planning aide Greg Bergman, who, along with department head Jefferson Murphree, recommended the negative declaration in the first place, is now recommending that the EAF and the negative declaration both be amended to reflect the new information disclosed last month.
The applicant’s attorney, Stephen Losquadro of Rocky Point, is urging the town to allow the application to proceed to final approval. He told the planning board during a March 4 public hearing on the site plan, “There was not an intent to hide something or omit something…It was not an effort to conceal.”
Losquadro argued that the project, despite the negative declaration dispensing with the need for an environmental impact statement — which was required of another large solar energy facility in Calverton — was “extraordinarily well-vetted process over a period of years.” He also said the statement about maximum height of structures on the EAF “was in the context of building space and this is not a building.”
But Bergman’s most recent memo to the town board, dated March 3, notes that the Department of Environmental Conservation’s “environmental assessment glossary” defines “structure” to include towers, poles, and things other than buildings.
However, Bergman concluded, the applicant’s newly submitted visual rendering of its proposed substation, also called a step-up transformer, shows a “robust” landscape plan along Edwards Avenue that will effectively screen it from the roadway.
Bergman had previously recommended that the substation, located 80 feet from the front property line, be relocated to a point set back not less than 350 feet. At the March 4 planning board hearing NextEra representatives said relocating the substation would require reconfiguring the entire site plan and, according to project manager Michael Dowling, would mean moving every solar panel.
So the town board is faced with a gnarly decision, especially since it has already negotiated a community benefits agreement with the applicant that will have the company pay the town $1.5 million. That’s plenty of incentive for the cash-strapped town to move this project across the finish line, especially in the current fiscal environment.
But everything about this application has been gnarly, right from the beginning:
There’s the sheer amount of acreage in Calverton being committed to solar energy production. Nextera is the fifth major commercial solar facility in the 11933 zip code, all of which surrounds Edwards Avenue because of the location of an existing LIPA substation that feeds the utility’s grid. Land to be covered in solar panels, including NextEra and a second sPower project now pending before the state, exceed 570 acres.
There’s the planning board and the town board initially both vying for lead agency status to gain the right to oversee environmental review of the application. (The planning board capitulated on the lead agency request, ceding lead agency status to the town board.)
There’s the move to have the town board issue a negative declaration before members of the board had even seen the completed full environmental assessment form.
There’s the shifting coalitions on the town board, with the supervisor opposed to the negative declaration but in favor of granting the special permit and Councilman Tim Hubbard in favor of the negative declaration but opposed to the special permit.
There’s the expanding opposition of Calverton residents to the proposal, most recently expressed in a Change.org petition that as of today has garnered 551 signatures.
And then there’s the reality of the very well-connected attorney for the applicant, counsel to the Suffolk County Republican Committee, who even as he was pressing members of the planning board and town board to move his client’s project along, presided over the Riverhead Republican Committee’s nominating convention as its parliamentarian on Feb. 22 — the first time in memory that the county committee’s legal counsel filled that role.
The convention resulted in the nomination of the town supervisor for a second term and a councilman by a party committee that included one member of the planning, the town attorney and a deputy town attorney. Besides the supervisor and Councilman Ken Rothwell, who were nominated that night, councilmen Frank Beyrodt and Tim Hubbard attended via Zoom.
Editor’s note: This article has been amended to correct the date of Nextera’s environmental assessment form. It was 2018, not 2019. It has also been amended to clarify and expand on who was in attendance at the Republican nominating convention last month.
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