Northville farm seeking variance for solar arrays

Credit: Patrick W. Moore
Credit: Patrick W. Moore

The owners of a Northville nursery who are seeking town permission to build solar panels on 10 acres at the rear of their Sound Avenue farm will first need to prove that no other use allowed under the property’s zoning will be profitable at the site.

Plant Connection, owned by Melissa Daniels and Anthony Caggiano, is seeking a “use variance” from the Riverhead Zoning Board of Appeals to allow them to incorporate a use not permitted by zoning.

To get a use variance, the applicant must prove that no other permitted uses would be profitable, according to ZBA attorney Scott DeSimone, who said this requirement makes it very difficult to obtain use variances.

Property owner Russell Ireland already has secured an agreement with PSEG to sell them power generated by the solar panels, Ms. Daniels said. The Plant Connection co-owner said over the summer that the lease with PSEG would make it possible for her and Mr. Caggiano to someday purchase the 40 acres they currently lease.

“Getting that solar farm is one of the only ways I could afford to buy the land,” Ms. Daniels said. “The extra income will make it easier to get a mortgage. If they take that away from us, it’s going to make it very hard for us to buy the land.”

Riverhead Town is currently in the midst of writing legislation to regulate how solar energy is sold back to public utilities — namely, if solar arrays should be permitted on agricultural land. Several plans in town have been pitched, with property owners saying they have come to terms with PSEG to sell energy.

Plant Connection specializes in “vertical plants” and roof plants that can grow on walls and need shade, accordion to Ms. Daniels. They plan to hang some plants that require shade under the stanchions that support the solar panels.

But in September, the Riverhead Town Board adopted new zoning that only allowed solar energy panels to be located in industrial zones, and not in the agricultural protection zone, where Plant Connection is located.

Now, Plant Connections is before the town Zoning Board of Appeals hoping they will allow the solar plan to move forward.

Their application, which was subject of a public hearing last Thursday, seeks one of three positions rulings. One is an interpretation that the proposed solar array constitutes a “public utility.”

Another is an interpretation that the solar array is an “accessory structure” to the agricultural business, and the third option is a use variance, which basically means the ZBA would be allowing a use not normally permitted by the zoning of the property.

To get a use variance, however, the applicant would have to meet certain criteria, including showing proof that none of the other permitted uses in the APZ district would be profitable.

“This is an agricultural business that is at the forefront of designing and creating vertical plants and roof plants,” their attorney, Steve Angel said Thursday. “But it’s difficult, because they want to stay in Riverhead but are having difficulty trying to finance their substantial dreams.”