Members of the Riverhead Town Board after Ken Rothwell was appointed and sworn in as councilman Jan. 5. Photo: Denise Civiletti

A majority of the town board has decided to let stand its original SEQRA negative declaration on the NextEra solar energy facility application, despite new information about the height of structures on the site that conflicts with information supplied by the applicant on its environmental assessment form.

The negative declaration, which dispensed with the need for further in-depth environmental review, was based on the town board’s evaluation of NextEra’s environmental assessment form, including the visual impacts of the facility.

The applicant’s EAF said the tallest structure on the site would be 11 feet tall, but drawings submitted to the planning board in February showed an electric substation that is 22 feet tall and two “masts” that are each 45 feet tall. The substation and masts would be set back 56.3 feet from the property line of the site along Edwards Avenue, according to site plan drawings submitted by NextEra.

Riverhead planning aide Greg Bergman had recommended that the board “update its negative declaration” to reflect the new information and amend its resolution to state that the applicant’s revised landscaping plan would adequately screen the facility and mitigate its visual impacts. Bergman’s recommendation came at a March 4 town board work session, after the planning board asked the town board whether the new information would cause the board to reassess its negative declaration.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar at the March 4 work session said “the landscaping is in place and deals with the height.” She asked board members “where do you stand on this?”

Councilman Frank Beyrodt said he didn’t think the change was significant.

“I was surprised by the fact that we didn’t see this originally, but compared with other projects that are being offered under Industrial C, I think this is the most passive and beneficial to our community,” Beyrodt said.

Councilman Tim Hubbard refused to answer. “This is not a vote,” he said.

“Okay, so print the resolution and we’ll put it to vote,” Aguiar responded.

But the matter never came to a vote.

Instead, Aguiar, Beyrodt and Councilman Ken Rothwell signed a March 30 letter to the planning board stating it would not amend its negative declaration, issued Feb. 4, 2020.

The “newly disclosed information would not have affected the prior actions taken by the Town Board,” the letter said. “The Town Board does not believe it is substantial in relation to the overall design of the project,” the letter said, and thus, “would not have changed our actions.”

Aguiar voted against the negative declaration on Feb. 4, 2020, arguing that the proposal for a 22.9 MW solar production facility on 198 acres off Edwards Avenue required more environmental review. Rothwell was not yet on the board.

Hubbard and Councilwoman Catherine Kent both said in separate interviews they wouldn’t sign the letter because they didn’t agree with it.

Kent said she didn’t agree with issuing a decision like this by letter rather than by voting on a resolution in a public meeting.

“We did discuss this in a work session. Information was brought to us. Some suggestions were made. It was recommended that we amend the neg dec,” she said. “That turned into leaving everything as is. It should have been publicly discussed and brought to a vote,” she said.

“Emails shouldn’t be replacing town board discussions,” Kent said.

“Everything that should be discussed in public is discussed in public,” Aguiar responded. “Everything is transparent and everything that has to go before a work session is brought before a work session,” she said. “It’s the town attorney’s responsibility to ensure that.”

Asked what changed between March 4, when she said there would be a vote on a resolution, and March 30, when three members of the board signed a letter, Aguiar today said planning board chairman Stan Carey first asked for a resolution and “two weeks later” asked for a letter.

At the Feb. 18 planning board meeting, the planning board directed Bergman to find out whether the newly disclosed information about structure height would change the town board’s decision to forego in-depth environmental review of the project. Bergman made a presentation to the town board at its March 4 work session.

That evening was the planning board’s next meeting and a public hearing on the NextEra site plan was on its agenda. At the conclusion of the public meeting, Carey asked Bergman when the next town board meeting would be held. Their discussion clearly contemplated a town board resolution, which they expected might be voted on at the next town board meeting.

“The next town board meeting, I believe, is on Tuesday, March 16,” Bergman told Carey. “Our next planning board meeting would be on Thursday, March 18. So depending on how the town board acts on the 16th on the resolution —“

“We’re gonna adjourn it till the 18th,” Carey interrupted. “But at that time, if we need to extend it again, we can.”

On March 18, Carey said, “there was actually no action taken on this since our last meeting… so this is going to be adjourned again until April 1, 2021.”

At the April 1 meeting, Carey said the planning board had received a letter signed by three members of the town board explaining their position on the SEQRA process.

Planning Board attorney Richard Ehlers advised the board that since the town board has approved a special permit for the solar facility, it is a permitted use and the planning board should proceed to review and act on the site plan as it would for any other site plan application.

Carey then asked the applicant’s attorney, Stephen Losquadro of Rocky Point, whether the applicant will relocate the electric substation. Losquadro said the applicant opted to screen the substation with landscaping. He confirmed that the applicant wants to move forward with the plan as proposed.

The site plan hearing was again adjourned. It will continue at the planning board’s April 15 meeting at 3 p.m. The public will have one more chance to weigh in on the application, Carey said.

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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.