The Riverhead Planning Board last night granted preliminary site plan approval to the proposed Calverton Solar Energy Center, a 22.9 megawatt commercial solar energy production facility to be built on approximately 198 acres off Edwards Avenue in Calverton.

The board voted 4-1 in favor of the preliminary approval, with Planning Board Chairman Stan Carey the lone dissenter.

“This has been a very flawed process right from the beginning,” Carey said before casting his vote. “It’s definitely, by far, the most questionable application that I’ve dealt with since being on this planning board and I’m still not satisfied that all the concerns and outstanding issues have been adequately resolved. So for that reason, I vote no,” Carey said.

The remaining four members of the board voted yes without comment.

The Calverton Solar Center facility is the project of LI Solar Generation LLC, a joint venture of NextEra Energy Resources and National Grid. It is the fourth commercial solar energy production facility approved by the Town of Riverhead. A fifth — the largest one so far — is pending before the state. Together they encompass approximately 660 acres of land clustered around a LIPA substation located on the east side of Edwards Avenue just north of the railroad tracks in Calverton.

The Calverton Solar Center preliminary approval, which is valid for one year, covers revised plans and drawings dated April 28 and May 4, that reconfigure the solar array to allow for a greater setback of the on-site collector substation from Edwards Avenue, from 85 feet in previously submitted plans to approximately 360 feet in the revised plans.

The proposed collector substation includes structures that are 22 feet tall, as well as 45-foot-tall masts. Details on the height of the structures were not disclosed by the applicant until February, when it submitted additional drawings. The height of the proposed structures, proposed to be located just off the roadway, led to pushback from members of the community and the the planning board.

After the applicant’s representatives told the planning board on Feb. 18 that the substation could not be relocated because it would upend the entire design of the site, the planning board on April 15 denied preliminary approval for the site plan.

The applicant subsequently submitted a revised site plan dated April 28, a revised landscaping plan dated April 28 and a collector substation plan dated May 4, which the board approved last night.

The preliminary approval includes eight conditions that must be met before final site plan approval will be granted, including:

  • a letter of approval from the Central Pine Barrens Commission Comprehensive Land Use Plan;
  • amended approvals from the State Department of Environmental Conservation for previously approved freshwater wetlands and Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act permits for the revised plans dated April 28;
  • a revised decommissioning plan including an estimate of the cost associated with removal of the solar array from the site, to be approved by the town’s engineering consultant;
  • the execution of a payment in lieu of taxes agreement with the town;
  • the execution of a community benefit agreement with with town in a form approved by the town board.

The approval also contains numerous conditions for the design, construction and operation of the facility.

One is a requirement that the proposed electric cable to run underneath Edwards Avenue, connecting the solar facility to a LIPA substation, will not be used to connect any future commercial energy production facilities to the substation without the express written consent of the town board and planning board.

The plans must also be revised to reflect the comments of the Central Pine Barrens Commission letter of June 20, 2019 and the Riverhead fire marshal’s letter of Feb. 9, 2021, according to the resolution granting preliminary approval.

The resolution also imposes requirements for additional landscaping to provide visual screening from an adjacent residential property at the southwest corner of one of the two lots being developed with the solar array.

The approval also requires the applicant to provide a landscape maintenance plan for all proposed landscaping, including irrigation details and maintenance schedules.

Planning board members heard again from community members before voting on the resolution granting preliminary approval.

Neighboring resident Craig Dahlgren of Calverton said the board misplaced its focus on the visual impacts on Edwards Avenue, where “people will be driving past at 50 mph,” and did not pay enough attention to the impacts on the residents along River Road.

“This is going to be in our lives every day,” Dahlgren said. “This is something we’re going to look at despite the vegetative buffer,” he said. It will still be visible, he said. “It’s right in our backyard.” He said residents asked for it to be pushed back more off the River Road but it was not required.

Planning aide Greg Bergman said the revised plans require additional landscaping in the southwest buffer area.

The location of the array is “probably close to 200 feet from the roadway,” Bergman said. He said while he didn’t have exact measurements, “I would have to guess it’s somewhere between 120 to 150 feet” from Dahlgren’s property.

“I would note there’s nothing in our town code that says these facilities have to be completely invisible,” Bergman said. “It is an industrially zoned property and they are eight-foot-tall panels.”

Barbara Blass of Jamesport, who has been critical of the town’s handling of the application from the start, reiterated that complaint last night.

“There have been errors and omissions of extraordinary degree and number on this project starting with the very first step of the application process,” Blass said. “And they’ve compounded over time.”

The plans before the planning board for approval last night were “undeniably” different plans than those for which the town board issued a negative declaration under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, said Blass, a longtime planning board member and its former chairwoman, who also served two terms as a Riverhead councilwoman . The town board’s negative declaration meant the proposal would not be subject to an environmental impact statement.

The freshwater wetlands and the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act permits issued by the State Department of Environmental Conservation in April 2020 were based on prior plans and require all activity on the site to be in conformance with those prior plans, Blass said. Now that the plans have changed, the applicant must re-apply for those two permits.

“Why would you approve a plan today which is inconsistent with the DEC’s permit and in violation of its conditions?” Blass asked. “If the applicant has not yet granted a permit modification you shouldn’t be approving these plans,” she said.

She argued that a condition of final approval requiring the plans to address the comments of the Pine Barrens Review Commission in a June 2019 letter is irrelevant because that letter contained comments on a different site plan.

Blass also questioned how the town planning department could have reviewed the extensively revised plans dated within the past week, as well as a collector substation plan dated May 4.

“That was two days ago,” Blass said. “And somehow, some way, these plans were reviewed by the already overburdened planning staff who were also reviewing the revisions from April 28, 2021 — just eight days ago. That’s an extraordinary turn-around time,” she said.

“There’s never been an explanation as to Nextera’s commitment to cooperate with sPower on any project sPower may have within a 10 mile radius of the site, which is the subject of a signed easement agreement with sPower. We still don’t know what that might mean for the Calverton community,” she said.

Blass also questioned the veracity of the applicant’s representatives and project engineers when they told the planning board on Feb. 18 that revising the site plan to provide greater setback from Edwards Avenue for the substation was “not feasible.”

Michael Dowling of NextEra told the board “it can’t happen for us” and said a two-page letter from the project engineers detailing why had been submitted to the planning department, Blass said, quiting from the planning board’s Feb. 18 meeting minutes.

“You had the project manager and the project engineers saying it’s not possible. So how did we get here,” Blass asked.

“Either they were disingenuous then or perhaps now. Which is it? Please do not allow this tortuous project to continue as the record here is not defensible,” Blass 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.