File photo: Denise Civiletti

This week, the Riverhead Town Board gave its constituents one more reason to lose trust in local government.

In a last-minute addition to its agenda for Tuesday’s meeting, the board scheduled a vote on resolutions to establish commercial battery energy storage systems as a use in the Town of Riverhead.

They did this without publicly discussing the matter — after hiring an outside consultant for  $10,000 to provide justification for the predetermined conclusion that commercial battery energy storage systems will not have any negative impacts on the environment or community requiring further study. And despite the fact that the $10,000 fee included the consultant’s attendance at a public meeting to discuss the analysis.

The supervisor, who controls the meeting agenda,  apparently with the support of at least two other board members, slipped the resolutions into Tuesday’s agenda packet released just before close of business Monday. 

Like nobody was going to notice.

We noticed. And residents who pay attention to the Town Board’s activities noticed.

The resolutions were pulled from the agenda Tuesday before the meeting. The board did not address what happened. The deputy supervisor, who was initially running the meeting because the supervisor was making an appearance at the County Legislature’s meeting, announced the resolutions had been removed to allow the board to meet with the consultant at its March 16 work session.

MORE COVERAGE: Battery energy storage code added to today’s town board agenda for a vote

Mind you, the subject of utility-scale commercial battery energy storage systems in Riverhead Town is a demonstrated matter of great concern to town residents, who turned out in force for a public hearing in December to demand that the board study the subject as part of its comprehensive plan update. 

The board’s willingness to dismiss their constituents’ concerns and forge ahead on this — and other — important land use matters in a piecemeal fashion outside the comprehensive plan update process is arrogant and disrespectful.

On top of that, it’s wasteful. The town is paying its planning consultants $422,000 to finish the long-delayed comprehensive plan update begun by another firm (which had been paid about $300,000.) The new contract’s scope of work includes studying and making recommendations for renewable energy infrastructure, including battery energy storage systems. 

So, instead of letting the consultants do the work the town is paying them to do, the Town Board decides to do an end-run around its own planning process and adopt this significant local law right away. What’s the rush? Who’s benefiting from this end-run? It sure isn’t the residents and taxpayers.

Northville resident Kathy McGraw called the move to slip the code adoption onto Tuesday’s meeting agenda without notice “stealthy and secretive.” We agree. 

In an email to the board Tuesday morning, McGraw argued for further review, invoking the recent fatal electric car fire in East Marion as an example of the evolving challenges firefighters face when fighting battery fires. 

Were local fire departments given an opportunity for input in the review of this proposed code? They are not listed among “involved agencies” in the Town Board’s resolution of Jan. 18 hiring BFJ Planning to complete the Full Environmental Assessment Form, which recites “involved and interested agencies”  the town is required to consult with before making its decision regarding environmental impacts of the code. Were area fire departments consulted? 

BFJ’s supplemental analysis, which we obtained by a Freedom of Information Law request after the local law was added to the agenda — it wasn’t published by the town beforehand — states that the future installation of battery energy storage systems “will require the involvement of the Town of Riverhead Fire Department and emergency service providers during the review and permitting of BESS, but also during the long-term operation of such facilities.”

First, there is no “Town of Riverhead Fire Department.” There are four independent fire districts within the town, each of which should be asked to review and comment on this proposed law, because each of them may be responsible for putting out fires at these facilities should they occur. Do they have the training, the equipment, and very importantly, the water available to fight battery fires? Lithium battery fires can require tens of thousands of gallons of water to extinguish. Does the water district have the capacity to pump that much water? Will the hydrants have the pressure needed to supply the fire departments’ hoses? This has been an ongoing concern in some areas of the town, where fire departments respond to even “routine” fires with tanker trucks to ensure water capacity and pressure.

BFJ’s analysis seems to kick the can down the road on this question, relying on project developers to satisfy a future Town Board that they meet fire code requirements rather than looking at it comprehensively up front, from the perspective of available resources and appropriate locations. 

But the truly worrisome thing is that the Town Board was willing to accept this analysis without a word of public discussion — and adopt the local law without any further discussion.

Seriously, what is the rush to adopt this local law? Some board members told the public that if the town doesn’t act quickly, the state, which is pushing renewable energy, will take control and site these facilities wherever the state deems appropriate. Council Member Bob Kern, one of the proponents of this theory, invited the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency to a work session to discuss these issues. At that meeting, board members learned the siting and permitting of stand-alone BESS facilities is not regulated by the state in any way, except for state fire code requirements.  Siting is strictly a matter of local jurisdiction.

There are a lot of things to consider when it comes to battery energy storage, as many residents pointed out during a public hearing in December. 

What are the unintended or collateral consequences of adopting this local law without comprehensive review? Will a new LIPA substation be built on Doctors Path — something already discussed by LIPA? If so, how many BESS facilities might be built on nearby land zoned APZ, one of the zoning districts where the town’s proposed local law would allow utility-grade BESS facilities? Will the developer of a proposed BESS facility on Mill Road be granted a special exception use by the Zoning Board of Appeals, allowing it to build there even though the zoning of that site is not among the districts listed in the proposed local law? Once BESS facilities are legally established uses in the zoning law, this is possible — and we already know the developer had its special exception use application ready to file months ago

The Town Board’s willingness to sidestep the comprehensive planning process on this and other matters speaks volumes of its interest in appeasing developers who want to bypass the planning process and shortcut the review time. Riverhead has a supervisor who consistently misrepresents the law of New York, making statements like moratoria are illegal and “vesting” of a developer’s right to build occurs as soon as an application is filed and under review. It has one council member  whose top concern is how fast a developer can get a shovel in the ground, and other members who seem more concerned about developers’ property rights than residents’ property rights and their quality of life after the developers are long gone. 

It makes you wonder whether the long delay in moving the comp plan forward is merely the result of poor management by the people elected to manage these things, or if it’s actually intentional. After all, the longer it takes to get the plan done — and codified, which will undoubtedly be another stumbling block, as we know from past experience — the more this board can proceed piecemeal on zoning and development outside the planning process.

The success of moving from fossil fuel to cleaner renewable energy technology like solar and wind requires infrastructure, including utility-grade battery energy storage systems. And while we should be moving forward to achieve that goal, we must not sacrifice careful planning in the process. Just as we are struggling to overcome the environmental impacts of short-sighted policies of past generations, actions we take today will impact generations to come. 

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