Council Member Tim Hubbard’s newest proposals to put a moratorium on industrial development in Calverton and development of commercial battery energy storage facilities in Riverhead were met with skepticism and opposition from other Town Board members, who did not openly embrace the idea of even calling public hearings on the proposals.
Hubbard, the most senior board member and the Republican candidate for town supervisor this year, brought both moratorium proposals — which would stop the review of certain applications — to the full board at its work session Thursday. Hubbard and town planners, who advised the board to support the moratoriums, said an industrial moratorium in Calverton was necessary to implement new initiatives of the comprehensive plan update, which is ongoing, and a moratorium on battery storage facilities would stop any development of the new use until an investigation by state officials into the cause of fires at battery storage facilities across the state concluded.
“There’s a lot of potential uses up there, a lot of square feet is available. And it’s about 12 million square feet of industrial space that’s available,” Hubbard said, referring to the Calverton hamlet. “And I for one don’t want to see 12 million square feet of industrial space used for development in that area.”
Hubbard proposed a moratorium on industrial development last year after the Planning Board recommended it. The Planning Board, Hubbard and planning department staff said the ongoing comprehensive plan update should study the future of the industrial zoning use districts, which required pausing the review of several large projects in the hamlet, including the 412,000-square-foot industrial park proposed by HK Ventures, a 641,000-square-foot logistics center proposed by Northpoint and a 131-acre industrial subdivision on Middle Country Road by OSTAD Riverhead. The moratorium had a massive wave of support from residents at several Town Board meetings.
A resolution to set the required public hearing on the moratorium was voted down by the Town Board 2-3 in January. Residents and civic groups have continued to ask the board to impose a moratorium, but with no success.
Both of the moratorium proposals discussed Thursday are for six months and include wide exemptions that would allow some industrial projects to continue to be reviewed by the Planning Board — which is something some board members in opposition to a “blanket” moratorium have said they would consider. The Town Board would be given the power to override its own moratorium on battery storage systems.
Still, those apparent concessions by Hubbard — which were not present when he introduced the original moratorium on industrial development — were not enough to win over fellow board members.
“We do not need to be known as the land of moratoriums,” Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said during the discussion.
Community Development Director Dawn Thomas, who is the interim head of the town’s planning department and is leading the development of the update to the comprehensive plan, said the town is attempting to expand its transfer of development rights program through the new plan. The plan is expected to recommend decreasing the density of industrial development, Thomas said, and allow for the purchase of development rights — which would be used to preserve farmland — to allow for increased density.
“And so if we allow development to go forward that’s currently proposed while those things are pending, you lose opportunity — and that’s really where moratoriums become appropriate,” Thomas said. “And so they’re very limited circumstances where they are appropriate — and I’m generally not a fan of moratoriums — however, in this particular instance, I feel like we need to allow us to really use TDRs to our advantage, to take the burden off of the residential taxpayers,” Thomas said.
“The best way to clarify it is, we’re taking our foot off the accelerator because we know we have a goal,” Planner Matt Charters said. “We can see the finish line, we know what we want to achieve, we just want to make sure that’s done correctly. Because at the same time, current zoning allows very intense development in this area. So there’s no real way, at this time, to say ‘please, wait, we want you to not do that, because we have a different idea.’ No. Developers are going to say we want to develop under the current zoning regime.”
Aguiar made her opposition to the industrial moratorium clear from the get go.
“A moratorium is the most invasive form of limiting people’s property rights. It’s a governmental action,” Aguiar said. “We have a moratorium already there on solar, and now we’re going to start talking about a moratorium on industrial, so it’s looking for people that couldn’t do solar now went to industrial. I wonder, what’s going to happen next?”
Aguiar cited the same arguments she used to oppose the moratorium in January, questioning the legality of a moratorium and warning that the town would be sued if the board imposed one.
A moratorium to temporarily halt development pending the completion and possible adoption of new land-use regulations is legal. Aguiar was advised by Town Attorney Erik Howard of that in a discussion of a potential industrial moratorium in October.
She also said the moratorium would “bypass” planning authorities within the town, including the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals and the town’s zoning officer. The moratorium issue, she said, should be referred to the Planning Board. The Planning Board “didn’t look at the legal aspect” of the moratorium when they recommended it to the Town Board, she said.
Contrary to Aguiar’s claims, none of those bodies have the authority to deny a person the right to build on their property if the proposed development conforms to the town’s current zoning code. Only the Town Board, the town’s legislative body, can amend the zoning code or impose a moratorium. The Planning Board has no legal authority to do either.
Hubbard reminded his colleagues that the Planning Board already recommended last year that the Town Board impose a moratorium on industrial development.
Council Member Frank Beyrodt was similarly hesitant about a moratorium. “I am all about preserving farmland; I’ve devoted my life to it,” Beyrodt, a farmer, said. “But I really like to know the details before we really pull the trigger on this.”
Council Member Ken Rothwell said he would only support a moratorium that was established for a “very definitive timeframe” that aligns with the work on the comprehensive plan. He brought up the town’s moratorium on commercial solar energy facilities, which he does not support renewing because, he said, not much work has been done to study the use.
“I’m not looking to just freeze things without getting the work done and coming back with an answer or a solution on why we did the moratorium or what we gained during [it],” Rothwell said. “I do feel that what Councilman Hubbard is putting forward, I think, is a great effort, to protect farming and give them the opportunity for TDR rights — and I do believe in that — but what happens to current projects that are currently performing SEQRA?” he said, referring to the environmental impact review developments must go through, as required by state law.
Rothwell was then told about the exemptions. Under the draft of the proposed industrial moratorium, applications for development projects that have received a positive findings statement under the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQRA) process — which is granted to a project or action after a project’s final environmental impact statement is considered and the project’s environmental impacts have been minimized or mitigated — are exempted from the moratorium. One major industrial development in Calverton, the 412,000-square-foot industrial park proposed by HK Ventures, fits this criteria.
The moratorium, as drafted now, would also exempt projects with final site plan approval, commercial communication facilities and applications that are “Type 2” actions pursuant to SEQRA, meaning they require no environmental review beyond the preparation of an environmental assessment form.
Town Board members were similarly hesitant about the moratorium on battery energy storage systems, also known as BESS. Hubbard said a six-month moratorium should provide enough time for a state working group to investigate recent fires at battery energy storage facilities across the state and the state’s current safety standards.
“This is a no brainer,” Hubbard said.
Similarly to industrial development, BESS facilities have been a big topic in Town Hall. Many residents objected to the amendment of the town code to allow BESS facilities, urging study through the comprehensive plan update on where to site them, as well as concerns about potential fires.
Charters, who worked on the town’s zoning code for BESS facilities, said the recent fires at BESS facilities in New York are a “real concern.”
“I think everyone knew what we wanted to achieve, and support green energy,” Charters said. “Subsequent to our adoption of this code, there are some issues. So that’s the concern here.”
Aguiar did not seem to share the same concerns, as she suggested the facilities that caught fire could have been older “first generation” systems. Charters refuted her statement, and said that, to his knowledge, the facilities upstate that caught fire were “fairly new.” In fact, all were approved and went into operation since 2020 and one of the facilities that caught fire had been online only about a month. The brand-new BESS facility that caught fire was the Power Centipede BESS, which a company looking to build a 100-megawatt BESS family on Mill Road just north of West Main Street in Riverhead. proposed for that site.
“If there was one fire in the area, and we knew what the cause was, I’d be less concerned, but clearly there’s something that’s not functioning correctly,” Charters said. “So I think to err on the side of caution, to allow experts to really figure out what the root cause of this issue, is the smart thing.”
Rothwell was hesitant about the BESS moratorium, stating that the review process for a BESS facility could take years. To pause applications now would be “unnecessary,” he said, and the Town Board can amend its code to reflect the state working group’s recommendations, if necessary.
Charters argued against his point. “I guess the concern is that: A. We don’t know what the recommendation is going to be, it’s a big unknown. There could be all those things that you said, it could be more, it could be less. The concern is that, if we have existing projects, they’re marching towards vesting.”
Charters said there was one application for a BESS facility filed recently. Charters did not immediately return a call requesting comment about the application filed.
“So right now, we have a solar moratorium in place. When that didn’t happen, people decided to go to the industrial. We’re doing a comprehensive plan and now we’re going to say moratorium on industrial until the comprehensive plan,” Aguiar said. “You always need an excuse — So it’s not like we created what you’ll have to have a reason. So you find a reason why you’re going to do that. And then right after that, we’re going to have battery energy storage moratorium. We do not need to be known as the land of moratoriums,” Aguiar said.
“No. We need to be known as the land that cares for its people and its properties,” Hubbard said.
“And we all do,” Aguiar said. “And we do care.”
“No we’re not. No we’re not,” Hubbard said over her. “Because we’re carelessly going forward — and that’s what the moratorium is about.”
The draft of the moratorium for battery energy storage facilities would include projects “sponsored by or funded by” Riverhead Town. The Town Board could also exempt individual project applications from the moratorium following a public hearing. The exemptions were not discussed by the board.
Council Member Bob Kern was the only board member who appeared open to supporting Hubbard’s BESS moratorium, although he did not specifically say so. “I would not approve anything that was not approved by the task force, that they didn’t do their proper vetting,” he said.
Hubbard asked for public hearings to be set for both moratorium proposals, but it isn’t clear whether board members would agree to a vote. The resolutions could be introduced as soon as this Tuesday’s Town Board meeting.
“My fellow board members, are you afraid that battery energy storage systems are going to pack up and go away and never come back here again? Are you afraid that these warehouses will never ever come to town because we put a six month moratorium on it?” Hubbard said. “I got news for you, that’s not going to happen. These people are making so much money off of these developments, they’re not going to go away. This isn’t going to scare them. It’s not going to happen.”
“But realistically, we need to look out for the best interest of what we want as a whole with the town through the use of the comprehensive plan,” Hubbard said. “And that’s the same reason solar was put for a moratorium — to be addressed through the comprehensive plan. It’s not that nothing was done, it’s that it was put on hold until we can get through the comprehensive plan. This is guiding us for the next 20 years; this is so important for us to get right. If we do not get it right now, we’re just opening up a room full of mistakes coming at us down in the future.”
Correction: Riverhead Planner Matt Charters was misidentified in a photo caption.
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