Riverhead Town Board members signaled they will move to expand the town’s moratorium on commercial solar applications to include all renewable energy systems, in anticipation of applications for new types of facilities, like anaerobic digesters, that are not addressed by the current zoning code.
Board members agreed to move forward with an expanded moratorium after a discussion during today’s work session about the role of anaerobic digesters in the future of the town. Anaerobic digesters are used in food waste-to-fuel facilities, such as the one proposed by CEA Energy at the Enterprise Park at Calverton.
CEA’s proposal triggered this morning’s discussion. The company has a pending application before the Zoning Board of Appeals for an interpretation on whether the current zoning at EPCAL allows the facility. The application to the ZBA was made by Taliesin East, which is looking to sell a vacant 8.3-acre parcel at 200 Scott Avenue to CEA Energy for the construction of a facility that would process organic wastes and generate renewable natural gas and compostable soil amenders, according to documents filed with the ZBA.
The site is located in the Planned Industrial Park Zoning Use District, adopted in 1999 for the 490-acre “industrial core” of the former Grumman manufacturing site. The town’s building department has twice ruled that the proposed use is not allowed under the zoning code — most recently in a March 4 letter from Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree, who cited a February 2019 determination by then-Chief Building Inspector Brad Hammond.
An anaerobic digester use is not spelled out in the code, making it difficult for the ZBA to make a determination on whether it is permitted in the district, ZBA Attorney Dawn Thomas told the town board today. She said the town board, as the town’s legislative body, will probably be the entity to make the decision.
“The zoning board determined that it was really a matter of the town board and so I think tonight — they’ll have up tonight or soon thereafter— they’ll have a determination probably referring it back to you — not presupposing that decision — but I think that’s where they’re going with it,” Thomas said. “But rather to leave the legislation to the legislature and the judiciary functions in the judiciary.”
Town Attorney Erik Howard recommended the board extend the moratorium on solar facilities to include all renewable energy systems. The moratorium expires in October and provides for a one year renewal by the board.
“I think that a lot of these systems, our planning department doesn’t know a tremendous amount about. We also don’t know, right now with the pendency of the comprehensive plan, where we’re going to want to site these things,” Howard said. “So I think it would be prudent to take a look at expanding the moratorium to include those systems, until we have more information about them and feel more comfortable considering where we can legislate zoning for those systems.”
CEA Energy consultant Victor Prusinowski, who filed the application with the ZBA requesting the interpretation, said the firm was not invited to today’s work session, but said he heard “there was a lot of misinformation” passed around during the meeting.
Prusinowski said he will talk to the supervisor tomorrow and request CEA Energy come to a work session to answer questions from the town board about anaerobic digestion facilities. He said he will request a rollover on the ZBA’s decision set to be made tonight.
“One of the reasons why we like the EPCAL site is because we want to utilize the rail spur. So it’s not a chemical processing plant. We’re not making fertilizer. It’s an organic system that takes organic waste and we can make gas, sell it back into National Grid or we can generate some electricity,” Prusinowski said.
Town board members discussed reports of explosions at the digester facilities and Supervisor Yvette Aguiar talked about sewage waste digesters in “Third World countries,” noting that Riverhead has no need for that because it has its own sewage treatment facilities. CEA Energy’s proposal does not involve sewage waste.
“Honestly, from everything I’ve been exposed to, and in terms of the digesters, they’re too new,” Councilman Tim Hubbard said. “There’s just not enough data out there on them to show what the long-term effect is of it. They sounded like they could be very dangerous, combustible at times…. And for me, it’s two years away before I would even think or consider. Let’s see somebody else be the guinea pig.”
Hubbard said most of the information about the anaerobic digesters are put out by the companies who want to build them “and of course, that’s all going to be positive information.”
Councilman Frank Beyrodt said he is not opposed to the idea of anaerobic digesters, but agreed with the idea to implement a moratorium to address the zoning in the context of the comprehensive plan update.
Councilman Ken Rothwell asked questions concerning the scale of the facility.
“I think that the idea of an anaerobic digester works and can be beneficial, but I would have concerns about the impact of the surroundings,” Rothwell said. “I don’t want to be the receiving capital of New York City to come out to Riverhead,” he said, citing concerns about tractor-trailer traffic.”So it’s not just the anaerobic digesters, but what happens in the surrounding environment.”
CEA Energy has not yet filed a site plan application with the town for the facility, but only pursued the interpretation from the ZBA.
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