Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree explaining to the Town Board on Jan. 18 the purpose of the new contract with BFJ Planning. Photo: Alek Lewis

Riverhead Town is entering a new contract with BFJ Planning to do the initial environmental assessment on the town’s proposed local law that would regulate battery energy storage systems.

BFJ Planning, which the town has already hired to finish its comprehensive plan update, will complete a full environmental assessment form (FEAF) for the proposed local law.

The FEAF document is required by the State Environmental Quality Review Act to determine whether further and more in-depth environmental review is needed on any particular action, including the adoption of a local law.

The town will pay BFJ up to $10,000 for the work necessary to complete the environmental assessment form. In the proposal approved by a unanimous Town Board vote last night, BFJ says it will complete the work by Feb. 3 and will attend one Town Board meeting to discuss it.

The resolution authorizing the contract was added to the agenda at last night’s meeting.

Riverhead Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree told the board the consultants have subject matter expertise that he and planning staff do not have.

“As qualified as my staff is, and my 40 years, this is new technology for us,” Murphree said, though he noted, “It is not new technology universally. It is new to the Town of Riverhead.”

Battery energy storage systems (BESS) are used to store energy for deployment during times of peak demand. They are regarded as essential to the success of renewable energy technology such as solar and wind power, because the battery systems store the electricity when its produced and feed it back into the grid when the demand is high, but production is low.

BFJ, which is already working on the comprehensive plan update pursuant to a contract approved last month, will “review this proposed law in context of the comp plan,” Murphree said.

“They have the expertise to do this. They have reviewed BESS facilities elsewhere in New York State,” he said.

According to the proposal, the firm will review the draft local law, listen to comments made during the Dec. 20 public hearing, and complete parts two and three of the FEAF.

The firm will evaluate potential impacts from the adoption of the local law.

“This proposal assumes that no potential significant adverse environmental impacts are identified” during the assessment and a negative declaration will be adopted, which completes the SEQRA review process. A negative declaration means no further environmental review is needed.

If the assessment results in a positive declaration under SEQRA, meaning an environmental impact statement is required, the firm will prepare a separate scope and budget for the town’s consideration.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said the board does not like taking resolutions “off the floor” for a vote, “but this is a rare occasion.”

Aguiar said the board has had a public hearing and heard the public’s concerns. “They’ve been here and they’ve spoken,” she said.

“We found out that this had to be done,” she said.

Council Member Ken Rothwell, who moved the resolution forward said, “It keeps the environmental studies going on it.”

“I like the fact that it’s going to the people who are doing the comprehensive plan, because they’ll know what they’re doing and what’s going on,” Aguiar said.

“My only question, Jeff, is this going to delay our timeline?” she asked Murphree.

“No, not at all,” he said.

During the public comment period, Kathy McGraw of Northville asked the board to table the resolution so the public could have the opportunity to review it. She asked if BFJ would be paid an extra fee for the work.

The supervisor called Murphree back to the podium to answer McGraw’s question. At that point, he disclosed the $10,000 fee for the review.

“This seems like a waste of $10,000, since BESS was part of the work they proposed,” McGraw said, referring to the proposed scope of work provided by BFJ and incorporated into its the comp plan update contract with the town.

In the scope of work for the comp plan update contract, BFJ said the “Infrastructure and Utilities” section of the document, to be prepared in collaboration with L.K. McLean Associates.

“Under this topic, we will review where existing solar facilities are located, where they could be located – given existing infrastructure, and where it would be most appropriate for these facilities and other renewable energy facilities (i.e. battery storage) to be located in the future,” the scope of work states.

The work should clearly be done as part of the comprehensive plan, McGraw said, reiterating what she and other members of the public have said in meetings and during the Dec. 20 public hearing.

“I think this is a rush to get it done and a waste of taxpayer money,” McGraw said last night.

Board members have said the town should not delay regulating battery energy storage facilities because the state is pushing renewable energy systems and will approve them and “dictate” where they can be built.

Rothwell last night repeated his previously expressed concerns that BESS facilities may be declared “public utilities” and the state may take over regulating them. “Then it can go anywhere that the state decides,” Rothwell said.

Council Member Bob Kern the state is looking to “become the zoning entity” and “wants to start zoning the towns.” He was apparently referring to recent proposals by Gov. Kathy Hochul seeking to boost affordable housing by requiring local governments to allow accessory apartments (a proposal that was withdrawn after backlash from localities) and allowing increased density around train stations.

McGraw questioned those statements and accused the board members of using scare tactics to convince people why the town has to move on this so quickly.

“It is unfair to move forward on something that is so important to this town, as demonstrated by the number of people who have come out and spoken on this,” McGraw said.

“We are tired of you all ram-rodding things through that you want done for developers,” she said.

Board members did not respond to McGraw’s comments before voting.

After the meeting Murphree said the work done by BFJ in reviewing the proposed local law will be included in the comprehensive plan if the board ultimately decides to adopt it.

If the board decided to postpone review of the local law until after the comp plan is adopted, it would still have to do an environmental assessment for the local law and demonstration that it is consistent with the comp plan and the generic environmental impact statement prepared for the comp plan, Murphree said.

“This is being kicked around for over two years. We’ve reviewed it, but they [BFJ] have the knowledge, expertise, they are doing the comprehensive plan, they can make sure that its consistent with the preparation of other elements of it,” Murphree said.

Alek Lewis contributed reporting.

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