The Riverhead Planning Board in a split vote yesterday rejected the site plan for a 22.9 MW commercial solar facility on 198 acres off Edwards Avenue. The project, Calverton Solar Energy Center, is the proposal of L.I. Solar Generation, a joint venture of NextEra Energy and National Grid.
A resolution granting preliminary approval to the Calverton Solar Energy Center site plan gained support from just two of the five planning board members, vice chairman Edward Densieski and member George Nunnaro.
Densieski said he supports solar power as sustainable energy and reiterated his support for an owner’s “property rights,” as he cast his vote in favor of granting preliminary site plan approval.
“Your neighbor doesn’t owe you a vista,” Densieski said, responding to critics of the visual impacts of the massive solar arrays that have been approved or remain pending for hundreds of acres of industrially zoned land in the Calverton area.
But the proposal is by no means dead. It is a permitted use on the site under a special permit granted by the town board on Dec. 1. If the applicant can submit a revised site plan that satisfies a majority of the planning board, the site plan can still gain approval.
After yesterday’s vote, planning board member Joseph Baier sought to amend the resolution to require the relocation of a electrical substation to a point at least 300 feet back from the property line on Edwards Avenue. Baier made a motion to amend the rejected resolution and Densieski seconded it. Chairman Stan Carey called a recess to consult with the town attorney on procedure, and when he reconvened the meeting he told board members the town attorney advised against holding a second vote on an amended resolution yesterday.
Carey said planning department staff should discuss a potential amendment to the site plan with the applicant’s representatives and the board could consider an amended resolution at a later date.
At a previous meeting, Carey had asked the applicant’s representatives to relocate the substation further back from the road, but they responded that it could not be done without reconfiguring the entire site plan.
“It would be a completely new project,” said NextEra project manager Michael Dowling. “We would have to move every solar panel,” he said. “Moving that substation is really not feasible.”
Drawings submitted in February for the first time showed a 22—foot-tall substation and two 45-foot-tall masts within 100 feet of Edwards Avenue, while the applicant’s environmental assessment form stated the tallest “structure” on the site would be 11 feet tall.
Since visual impacts of a proposed development action must be assessed by the lead agency under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), community members argued that the town board, which had assumed lead agency status for the SEQRA review — over the planning board’s initial objection — should rescind its special permit approval and begin the SEQRA review process anew.
A majority of the town board declined to do so, and signed a letter to the planning board stating it stood by its Feb. 4, 2020 decision to issue a “negative declaration” under SEQRA, a finding that meant the project did not require an environmental impact statement.
The town board did not hold a hearing on L.I. Solar’s special permit application held until late October didn’t vote on the permit until Dec. 1.
In the time between the negative declaration and the permit vote, the town and the applicant negotiated a “community benefits” agreement that requires the applicant to pay $1.5 million to the town for various purposes. The town board authorized the supervisor to sign the agreement on Dec. 15.
Also over the course of the last year, opposition to the project — and, in general, to the proliferation of commercial solar facilities in the hamlet of Calverton — grew, with nearly 700 people signing on to a Change.org petition against more commercial solar facilities in Calverton.
Opponents today reiterated objections to the solar facilities in Calverton and to the town board majority’s decision not to rescind the board’s special permit approval and begin the SEQRA review process anew.
The board’s decision was communicated in a letter signed by Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, Councilman Frank Beyrodt and Councilman Ken Rothwell.
Kathleen McGraw of Northville, an attorney, questioned the legality of a letter purporting to speak for the full board without a board vote being held.
Their March 30 letter said, “The Town Board …finds that the newly disclosed information would not have affected the prior actions taken by the Town Board. The Town Board does not believe it is substantial in relation to the overall design of the project, and that it would change the above referenced actions taken by the Town Board.”
It concluded: “This correspondence, thus, is made to provide the Town Board has been made aware and that having been made aware, find that it would have not changed our actions.”
McGraw also questioned how Aguiar and Rothwell could make that statement about “our actions,” when Aguiar voted against the negative declaration in the first place and Rothwell — who was appointed to the town board in January 2021 — wasn’t a member of the town board when it made its SEQRA decision in February 2020.
She also questioned whether Beyrodt, whose wife’s family owns and operates sod farms in the area, has a conflict of interest in the Nextera matter, noting that he recused himself from a vote on a proposed solar moratorium because of his family’s business interests. She questioned whether the NextEra project would financially benefit Beyrodt’s family business in the future, citing an easement agreement between NextEra, sPower and Westbury Properties.
The easement agreement gives Nextera the right to place transmission and communications facilities in an area of property owned by Westbury Partners that is subject to a lease option with sPower. sPower currently has an application, known as Riverhead Solar 2, pending before the state for a 36-megawatt solar production facility on approximately 275 acres in Calverton.
Beyrodt said yesterday afternoon he has “nothing to do with Nextera one way or the other” and that the easement has “nothing to do with me or my wife’s family.”
He said his wife’s family owns “a tiny share” of a “large conglomeration of properties” that comprise sPower’s Riverhead Solar 2 site.
“They have 20 acres that they’re farming still,” Beyrodt said. “It has nothing to do with me directly.”
Beyrodt said he recused himself from the vote on the solar moratorium because the site of sPower’s Riverhead Solar 1 project — 109 acres in Calverton — was owned by his wife’s father, aunt and cousin.
“They farmed it for many years and they eventually sold it to sPower,” Beyrodt said. “It became clear to me that if we were going to vote on a moratorium, then I should just recuse myself because it could be perceived as a conflict.”
The councilman, who was elected to the board in 2019 and took office Jan. 1, 2020 said he believes solar production facilities are a good use for farmland that’s zoned industrial. The industrial zoning allows much more intense uses than solar panels, Beyrodt said.
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