The Riverhead Planning Board during its meeting of Aug. 19, 2021. Photo: Denise Civiletti

It’s been a bumpy ride to the finish line, but Calverton Solar Energy Center, a 22.9 megawatt commercial solar facility on 198 acres off Edwards Avenue, won final site plan approval from the Riverhead Planning Board this afternoon.

The vote was 4-1, with Planning Board Chairman Stan Carey dissenting.

“I think there are too many questions on this and many of them still outstanding,” Carey said before casting his no vote.

Calverton Solar Energy Center is being developed by LI Solar Generation LLC, a joint venture of NextEra Energy Resources and National Grid.

The planning board’s approval makes Calverton Solar Energy Center the fifth commercial solar production facility approved in and around the Edwards Avenue corridor in Calverton.

The most recently approved project, a 36 megawatt facility on 275 acres off Edwards Avenue and State Route 25, was approved by the State Office of Renewable Energy Siting in June. Because it is larger than 25 megawatts, jurisdiction over Riverhead Solar 2, being developed by AES, rested with the state rather than the town. That project is not yet under construction.

All of the approved solar facilities will tie into the LIPA grid via a substation on the east side of Edwards Avenue, just north of the railroad tracks.

The developer has met all of the conditions of the preliminary site plan approval granted by the planning board in May, including a green light from the Central Pine Barrens Commission last week, Riverhead Planning Aide Greg Bergman told planning board members today during a discussion prior to the board’s vote.

It has a signed community benefit agreement with the town requiring it to pay $1.5 million to the town and various community groups and a signed Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement. It also signed a memorandum of understanding with the town regarding an easement across Edwards Avenue; the easement will be fully executed upon site plan approval, Bergman said.

LI Solar Generation’s attorney Steven Losquadro, left, and Riverhead Planning Aide Greg Bergman at the Aug.19 planning board meeting. Photo: Dense Civiletti

LI Solar Generation’s attorney Steven Losquadro said the approval was “wonderful news” for both his client and the community.

“I think renewable energy is a very laudable endeavor for the state,” Losquadro said. “I think the push to integrate a lot of renewable energy befits all of us environmentally,” he said. “There’s a big push for renewable energy in Albany.”

While estimates vary, the 88 megawatts that will be generated collectively by the five commercial solar power facilities in Calverton could power more than 14,400 homes at peak capacity, according to a metric published by the Solar Energy Industries Association, which says one megawatt of solar energy in New York can power an average of 164 homes. The type and size of the homes will affect the actual number.

New York State is required to reach a goal of 70% renewable energy by 2030, under goals set by the governor and State Legislature.

But this and other solar projects in Calverton drew opposition from area residents and some town officials who thought the solar facilities in Calverton were too large and too concentrated in one small community. Some officials — including the planning board itself — called for a moratorium on the approval of new solar facilities. The town board held a public hearing on a draft local law that would impose a moratorium, but it was tabled and never acted upon.

Some critics complained that the town did not give Calverton Solar Center the “hard look” required by the State Environmental Quality Review Act. The town board, which has jurisdiction over special permit uses, declared lead agency for purposes of SEQRA review and subsequently issued a negative declaration for the plan, meaning the developer was not required to prepare an environmental impact statement.

Others expressed concern about the unanswered questions surrounding decommissioning the solar array 30 years hence, and the ultimate disposal of the thousands of solar panels.

Manorville resident Ed Graham has been a relentless critic of solar energy and installations, citing health and safety concerns. Graham attended today’s planning board meeting and repeated his concerns, which include the possibility of panels being damaged or destroyed by fires, storms or natural disasters and leaking toxic chemicals into the sole-source drinking water aquifer.

Graham also said the community at large, even residents who live in Calverton and Manorville, are not aware of what’s going on with solar power in Calverton. “Nobody knows about this,” Graham asserted.

Losquadro said the land where Calverton Solar Center will be developed and the sites of the other installations are zoned industrial and could be developed with industrial uses, such as warehouses, as of right. The impacts of those uses — traffic, pollution, even noise issues — would be much more intense, the attorney said. Solar is much more benign, he said.

Losquadro said his client made many concessions to gain approval. These included a 300-foot setback from the road and extra landscaping and screening. “You’re not even going to be able to see it,” Losquadro said.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor and attorney. Her work has been recognized with numerous journalism awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She was also honored in 2020 with a NY State Senate Woman of Distinction Award for her trailblazing work in local online news. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.