A second moratorium proposal for commercial solar energy systems was aired at a town board public hearing Tuesday night.
The proposed moratorium would pause processing by the town of applications for site plan approvals, subdivisions or special permits for commercial solar energy systems for a period of 12 months.
Excluded from the moratorium would be solar energy production systems proposed for an urban renewal area in the town, such as the Enterprise Park at Calverton, applications submitted in response to a request for proposals issued by the town, and applications for residential or commercial properties that meet the criteria of energy conservation devices and not made pursuant to a power purchase agreement. Also excluded are applications that have already received site plan, special permit or state sitting approvals,
The town considered, but did not adopt, a solar moratorium a year ago. After a Sept. 1, 2020 public hearing, the town board voted to table the proposal, which had drawn pushback from renewable energy advocates and environmental groups. With Councilman Frank Beyrodt abstaining to to family business interests, the board voted 4-0 to table the measure for a short time to address concerns and questions about its language, members said.
Supervisor Yvette Aguiar brought the moratorium proposal forward again last month, urging the board to adopt it this time to allow the town time to complete its comprehensive plan update, which is now underway.
The move has drawn criticism from Aguiar’s political opponent, Councilwoman Catherine Kent. Kent, a Democrat seeking to unseat Aguiar in the November election, faulted the supervisor for waiting until the a 22.9-megawatt NextEra/Long Island Solar Generation facility had its town approvals. Kent cast the supervisor’s timing as a favor to the applicant’s lawyer, Stephen Losquadro, who is counsel to the Suffolk County Republican Committee.
“I think that it is not coincidental that this moratorium resurfaces after Mr. Losquadro’s project goes through,” Kent said last month.
Kent was unhappy last year that the moratorium then on the table would have excluded applications that had already been filed, including the NextEra/Long Island Solar Generation application.
“We’ve heard a lot from people in Calverton being really tired of seeing solar farms at the moment. And I think this was the best way to address it, to put a stop and let the comprehensive plan dictate where we’re going,” Aguiar said Tuesday night.
But unlike when the moratorium was proposed last year, when environmental advocates turned out to oppose the moratorium, the public hearing this week was pretty quiet.
Ryan Madden of the Long Island Progressive Coalition urged the board to avoid putting solar power production on hold for a year, in light of the climate crisis “when we need to be rapidly moving away from fossil fuels.” Madden suggested using less expansive tools to meet the same goals.
In a written statement read by Calverton Civic President Toqui Terchun, Barbara Blass of Jamesport said “the time to analyze the potential impact of rezoning 1,000 acres to provide for commercial solar energy facilities is at least seven years and 700 acres too late.”
Blass was referring to the September 2014 adoption by the town board of the Commercial Solar Energy Production Systems code, which allowed commercial solar energy facilities by town board special permit in the Light Industrial, Industrial A, Industrial B and Planned Industrial Park zoning use districts. The code was amended in February 2018 to allow commercial solar energy facilities in the Industrial C zone in the Calverton 11933 zip code, also by special permit.
The town board did not conduct an in-depth environmental review in either 2014 or 2018 to study the impacts of the proposed zoning, Blass noted.
And the town board again declined to conduct an impact study in 2019, when the planning board asked for a moratorium in order to assess the impacts of a growing number of commercial solar applications in Calverton, Blass said in the statement. The planning board expressed concern “with how fast these applications are coming in and how many have been approved in one region of the town.”
Blass also chided the town board for not requiring an environmental impact statement for the NextEra/Long Island Solar Generation project. “How can you now say you have to take time out to study the cumulative impact… from all these solar projects, when that is exactly what SEQRA is for? A NextEra EIS would have had to address all the issues you are now saying have to be studied,” Blass said.
“This is an impotent moratorium staged during silly season. And far from a genuine concern for local environmental impacts,” Blass wrote.
Aguiar replied to Blass’ statement by blaming the former councilwoman for the solar facilities in Calverton.
“If I remember, Barbara Blass, when solar was put into the into the comprehensive plan back many years ago, she was responsible for that, but she’s not here right now. It is a statement. And we’re gonna move forward from that,” Aguiar said.
Blass was on the town board when the comprehensive plan was adopted in 2003. Elected in 2001, she served two terms and did not seek re-election in 2009. Prior to her election to the town board, Blass was chairperson of the planning board, which she had served on since 1983.
Asked after the meeting what the 2003 comprehensive plan said about solar facilities, Aguiar said she couldn’t say without looking at the document but “that’s what Jeff told me,” she said, referring to Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree.
The legislative intent section of the moratorium law now before the board speaks of the 2014 adoption of the Commercial Solar Energy Systems Code and refers to its intent to “achieve the goals of providing sources of renewable energy as outlined in the 2003 comprehensive plan.”
But the 2003 comprehensive plan did not outline goals for providing sources of renewable energy. In the plan’s chapter on utilities and infrastructure, it notes “LIPA is currently undertaking several projects to secure a more reliable power supply.” It goes on to say, “These include the Cross Sound Cable project (high voltage underwater cable that would connect the electric transmission grids of new England and Long Island), the installation of new turbines at LIPA plants, the use of portable generators for emergency backup, and the development of a program for off-shore wind power. Either power plant expansions and/or conservation measures may be needed in the future to serve the Long Island’s growing economy and population.”
Murphree today acknowledged solar farms are not “specifically addressed” in the 2003 plan. Industrial zoning in Calverton was recommended in the town’s 1973 Master Plan and reaffirmed in the 2003 plan, he said.
“I believe this is what Yvette was referring to,” he said.
“Our industrial zoning and uses allow manufacturing and processing. Looking at solar farms, this is considered to be a manufacturing and processing use as you are converting solar energy and turning it into electricity,” he said. “That’s an industrial process.”
Blass said in an interview today large-scale solar facilities as we’ve seen developed in Calverton in recent years were not even a consideration when the existing comprehensive plan was being written.
“If this use was in accordance with the 2003 plan, why wasn’t it in the zoning adopted pursuant to the plan, which lists a large number of permitted uses,” Blass said. “It wasn’t until 2014 the it was added and 2018 when the use in Industrial C in Calverton was added,” she said, adding that she was long out of town government and had nothing to do with either of those code amendments.
“This is the third time I’ve heard the supervisor make a statement like that about commercial solar facilities being sited in Calverton as a result of the 2003 comp plan,” Blass said. “I’m disturbed that the supervisor persists in repeating such blatant misinformation,” Blass said.
Murphree said reducing reliance on fossil fuel and concerting to clean energy is a “laudable goal,” but it certainly has impacts at the local level.” He said he believes the biggest concern about solar farms is that they require a large amount of land area in order to be profitable and they take land away that could be used for other permitted land uses.
“There has been discussion at the national planning level and in New York State about the co-existence of solar farms and agricultural production,” Murphree said. “There is certainly a balancing approach that needs to be taken to address this issue, which is why our current comprehensive plan process is so critical in how we move forward.”
The moratorium is intended to buy the town board time to study the impacts of large-scale solar production as part of the comprehensive plan process.
Aguiar said Tuesday night she plans to bring the moratorium legislation to a vote at the next town board meeting, which is scheduled for Oct. 5. The supervisor left the hearing record open for 10 days to allow the submission of written comments.
The comprehensive plan update community meetings continue on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday next week. The hamlets of Calverton and Baiting Hollow will be the subject of discussion on Tuesday. All meetings will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Riverhead Senior Center at 60 Shade Tree Lane in Aquebogue and via Zoom. Click here for Zoom links.
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