A solar energy facility on the east side of Edwards Avenue in Calverton. Photo: Peter Blasl

The Riverhead Town Board received support from residents last night on its plan to extend the moratorium on applications for developing new solar energy production facilities for another year.

The five residents who spoke reiterated the need for further study of the future of solar projects in the town during last night’s hearing — and some even suggested the Town Board should consider expanding the moratorium to include other types of development, like warehouses and logistics centers.

“The land-use reason for this moratorium is absolutely appropriate,” said Reeves Park resident Mike Foley. “I just think the confining it to solar is inadequate. So, when we talk about warehousing and other issues that are land-use relative, I don’t understand why we as a town can’t understand that because of extenuating circumstances with COVID, possibly a bad hiring decision with AKRF, and our continuing search for consultants that can bring our comprehensive plan up to date and to fruition, that we can’t consider expanding this beyond solar.”

The board adopted a year-long moratorium on applications last October after residents and board members expressed concerns that solar projects were developing too fast in Calverton. The moratorium was criticized before adoption by some residents, who said it came too late because hundreds of acres of land, located near a LIPA substation on Edwards Avenue, had already been developed into solar farms. 

The LIPA substation on Edwards Avenue, which has been a magnet for solar energy production facilities in Calverton. Photo: Peter Blasl

The pause was meant to allow the town to complete a chapter of the comprehensive plan update focused on how much land should be developed into commercial solar facilities and where they should be located over the next few decades, but completing the comprehensive plan update has continually stalled and is now paused. Town officials said they hope the comprehensive plan update will finally be done when the moratorium extension expires. 

Council Member Tim Hubbard and Supervisor Yvette Aguiar expressed their full support for the moratorium. Aguiar said she would even be in favor of adopting moratoriums to halt applications for battery energy storage systems and anaerobic digesters, something that Hubbard has suggested the board do throughout the past few months. Both types of developments have submitted applications to the town this year.

Council Member Bob Kern said that the year-long moratorium is “arbitrary” and he would favor adopting a six-month moratorium. “And if the comprehensive plan has not addressed this in six months to then extend it,” he said.

“I’m not going to make the assumption that the comprehensive plan is going to take 12 months, given that half of it’s done already,” Kern said.

“I understand what you’re saying, Bob, but in reality, it’s going to be 12 months before the comprehensive plan is done,” Hubbard said.

Town Attorney Erik Howard said the Town Board can repeal the moratorium if the comprehensive plan update is completed before it expires. Kern said in a phone call today that he would vote in favor of the moratorium for that reason.

Kern said he is also opposed to a moratorium for anaerobic digesters and battery storage facilities. “It’s not new technology. You know, we hear these things. And you know, there’s 100,000 battery storage units across the country. This is not new, it’s just new to Riverhead,” Kern said. “But we shouldn’t be afraid that something’s new to us. I would urge people to go look. There’s 1,400 anaerobic digesters in the country. There’s not one that’s coming to Riverhead as an experiment, and I would urge people to really just do some research and see where this stuff is being done elsewhere.”

Sid Bail, the president of the Wading Riverhead Civic Association, said he agrees with expanding the moratorium to anaerobic digesters and battery stage facilities. “The battery storage, the anaerobic digesters, maybe they are the way of the future. But you know, let’s make sure,” he said. “And the town is gonna be paying a lot of money for the comp plan. And let’s get another set of eyes on this, we might be able to give us a clearer vision of what we can do.”

John McAuliff of Roanoke Landing, also agreed. He said the board should also consider making future solar projects a dual use together with an agricultural use, an idea known as agrivoltaics. Board members were amicable to the idea.

Map showing location of existing and proposed solar energy facilities in Calverton. The sites marked proposed have been approved.

Council Member Ken Rothwell continued to criticize the inaction of the town’s planning department in analyzing the impacts solar facilities are having on the town during the public hearing. 

“I think it’s disappointing that there’s been, from what I’ve gathered, there’s been absolutely no work on the solar moratorium at all over the last year,” Rothwell said. “And I’m just curious if the planning department has put anything in effect in terms of collecting any data from residents.

“Have there been complaints, or issues, concerns, environmental things that have been raised anything over the duration that they’ve been in place? Do we have a committee or anything that has been set forth to look at it?”

“Are we solely relying only on the company for the comprehensive plan to provide us with information for this moratorium? And has that typically been done in years past?” Rothwell asked. “…Or do we only do moratoriums when we have comprehensive planning companies coming in. Like, can’t we do some of this in house to give us some type of consensus on what’s going on and how to approach this?”

Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree said the planning department has done a “very quick and dirty analysis of the vacant remaining industrial land in the town of Riverhead.”

“It is enormous. And we did an analysis based upon the calculation provided by the other solar farm applications on a potential amount of additional electricity that can be produced by the additional expansion of solar farms that they built up to fruitio and the number of homes they would serve. It extends way beyond any potential build out in the Town of Riverhead,” he said.

Murphree said there are several positives and negatives that solar farms provide that need to be analyzed. There is also an economic impact of the solar farms that needs to be analyzed. 

“I’m not an economist, I cannot testify as to the benefits in terms of property taxes or assessment. I’m leaving that to the people that have the knowledge and expertise in that,” he said. “You certainly do not have that with the planners in the town. And that’s what we’re going to be relying on the consultants on.”

Rothwell asked if Murphree can schedule work sessions with the new consultant to discuss the topic so that the town is “not just sitting idle, waiting for the results of the comprehensive plan.”

“I just feel like nothing was done,” Rothwell said. “And so I’d like to see us progress if we’re going to continue this moratorium, that we begin to have interacting. Like we have the experts come in. Let’s start collecting data and putting things together and not just sit. I feel like we’re sitting idle. We’re just waiting.”

Council Member Frank Beyrodt was absent from last night’s meeting. Beyrodt has recused himself from conversations surrounding the solar moratorium and abstained from voting due to a conflict relating to his family business interests.

The current year-long moratorium expires on Oct. 26, the day it was filed with the Secretary of State after local adoption, Howard said. 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. 

The moratorium also does not stop the Town Board from issuing requests for proposals for solar projects, which they did in May for a town-owned landfill site on Youngs Avenue.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com