The Riverhead Town Board is considering extending the town’s year-long moratorium on commercial solar energy project applications when it expires in October, although it isn’t clear for how long.
The Town Board adopted the moratorium last October after residents expressed concerns that solar projects were developing too fast in Calverton. There are about 660 acres of land in Calverton either already developed or under development with utility-scale solar power facilities, all clustered in the vicinity of a LIPA substation on Edwards Avenue. The pause was intended to allow the town to complete a chapter of the comprehensive plan update focused on how much land should be dedicated to commercial solar facilities and where they should be located over the next few decades.
Town officials projected last year that the comprehensive plan update would take another year to complete, but progress has continually stalled. Multiple delayed deadlines culminated in the Town Board last month terminating the town’s agreement with the consulting firm hired to undertake the planning work, AKRF. Town officials were “increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of progress and shallow depth of study put forth by” the firm, according to a press release.
Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree told the board during today’s work session that no progress has been made in analyzing solar projects within the town. He said that AKRF’s “lack of research and analysis on this topic is one of the reasons why they are no longer employed by the town.”
Supervisor Yvette Aguiar proposed that the town extend the moratorium, which Murphree said was also the planning department’s recommendation.
Town Attorney Erik Howard said he brought the topic to the board because there are only four more meetings until the moratorium expires and extending the local law would require a public hearing. There is no specific amount of time mentioned in the extension section of the current local moratorium law, he said, so the board can set any length of time it wishes.
Aguiar asked Howard to reach out to Councilman Tim Hubbard and Councilman Bob Kern, who were absent from the work session, to ask them their opinions on how long they would want the moratorium extended. Aguiar suggested a one-year extension.
Councilman Ken Rothwell expressed concerns about an extension. The idea of the moratorium was “to learn and discover, and I would have thought by now we would be having a report from our planning department that would state what they have learned and what the impacts it’s going to have,” he said.
“So is the answer that no one in the town is studying this at all and we’re just relying on an outside source to provide us information, and we no longer have that group in place?” he added.
Howard said in response to Rothwell that the legislative intent of the moratorium is so the town can complete its comprehensive plan analysis on solar projects. He said the town may want to extend it “until we have the final plan or until we get enough information that we’re comfortable with letting the moratorium expire.”
Rothwell asked if the town had a timeframe for when it expects the comprehensive plan may be completed. He got no direct answer from Murphree, Howard or Aguiar.
Rothwell said in an interview after the meeting that “to continue moratoriums without actually any work being done to study it, I have an issue with that,” he said. “So I’m not saying that I’m for solar projects or I’m against solar projects, I’m saying where’s the work that’s supposed to have been done over the last year?”
Town officials began searching for a replacement firm for AKRF after they announced plans to terminate the town’s contract. Aguiar said the town has narrowed the field down to three candidates to complete the update and that the firms will be presented to the board next week. The board will then decide on a new consultant.
Rothwell said after the meeting that the town should know how long the update will take, now that a new firm is to be hired. “But just to outright say, I’m just going to throw moratoriums around and stopping everything, I don’t think it’s a proper way to govern,” he said.
Murphree did not return a call seeking comment before this article was published.
“I think we should go forward,” Aguiar said. “I don’t know what there is to learn. Obviously we’re going to learn from the update. The planning department has agreed that we should extend it. The process is coming very close, to have a designated new company is going to come in, so I think we should extend it again.”
Howard suggested that the board schedule a public hearing on the moratorium at its next meeting.
“I believe in this instance it would be good practice to put something up and have a public hearing,” he said. “After that public hearing, whether we move forward and adopt something to extend it, okay. Otherwise, based on the feedback we get there or based on what we’ve learned from some of the candidates that we have lined up to come into the comprehensive plan update, maybe we just don’t adopt such a local law and [the moratorium] does expire. So let’s go through that process and allow the public forum to come in and make comments.”
“Absolutely, and that’s the purpose of the public hearing right? Is to gather information from both sides and see where we’re going to go,” Aguiar said. “So right now we are not going to say we’re going to extend it, obviously there’s a process that we need to take — and I support that process, absolutely.”
Councilman Frank Beyrodt, a sod farmer, recused himself during the discussion on the moratorium — as he has in the past, because part of the site of a previous solar project was owned by his wife’s father, aunt and cousin.
He remained on the dais so that the meeting could continue with a quorum of the board.
The moratorium adopted by the board last year drew substantial criticisms from differing perspectives. A number of environmental and renewable energy advocates and organizations argued that the moratorium would delay the development of solar energy projects necessary to meeting New York State’s renewable energy goals, including an emission-free electric grid by 2040. Others, including then-Councilwoman Catherine Kent, argued that the moratorium was “a little too late” since several large solar facilities in Calverton were already in motion for approvals, and the language of the moratorium exempted projects that already submitted applications.
The local moratorium does not capture projects reviewed by the state’s Office of Renewable Energy Siting, which handles applications for facilities that exceed 25 megawatts. Riverhead Solar 2, a 36 megawatt facility in Calverton located in the Edwards Avenue area, gained state approvals in June 2021 and began pre-construction this January, according to the website of the project’s parent company, AES.
Editor’s note: This story has been amended to correct its byline.
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