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Proposal would ban tree clearing for solar farms

01/18/2019 5:50 AM |

Future solar energy installations in Riverhead Town will not be permitted in areas where tree clearing is needed, according to a proposal before the Town Board Tuesday. 

The measure had the support of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, whose executive director, Richard Amper, spoke at Tuesday night’s public hearing on the proposal. 

“The Pines Barrens Society applauds the Town of Riverhead’s effort to safeguard its woodlands,” Mr. Amper said. 

“The proposal will make sure that both solar and woodlands will not be pitted against one another,” he said.

The society, Mr. Amper noted, “has been concerned about the recent trend on Long Island that has seen the sacrifice of woodlands for the construction of solar farms.”

He added that 60 acres of woodlands had been cleared in Mastic in March 2018 to prepare for a solar farm.

“It took a year to get here, but we’re finally here, and I’m glad that it’s finally up for a public hearing and I’m glad the Town Board is entertaining it,” Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said.  

Mr. Amper was Tuesday’s only speaker and the board left the hearing open for written comment only until Friday, Jan. 25. 

The proposal states that “solar energy production facilities shall be permitted only on those lands previously cleared and/or disturbed on or before Jan. 1, 2019. No additional clearing shall be permitted. The removal of shrubs, underbrush and trees under three inches in diameter shall be permitted and shall not be deemed clearing.”

All of the solar farms built in Riverhead in the past few years have involved land where clearing was not needed.

The town’s zoning prohibits solar farms from being built on agriculturally zoned land, but all of the recent solar farm proposals were built on or planned for property zoned for industrial uses, even though they were being used for sod farms. 

• PILOT on solar project

The Town Board also approved a memorandum of understanding Tuesday between the town and sPower, which has received approval for a 20-megawatt solar energy production field on 109 acres stretching from south of Middle County Road and west of Edwards Avenue to land where sPower already has a solar farm, on the east side of Edwards Avenue. 

The company also plans a third solar farm adjacent to this one: a 36-megawatt facility on 290 acres. Because that installation will be more than 25 megawatts, however, the law requires that it be reviewed by the state rather than the town.   

The 20-megawatt project is eligible for tax exemptions under state law, and the approved memorandum spells out a 15-year payment in lieu of taxes plan for the site, as well as other payments to the town. 

The first year of the PILOT calls for sPower to pay the town $460,000, as well as a $450,000 easement and a $1,050,000 Community Benefit Agreement. 

More specifics on the arrangement, such as PILOT amounts for future years, will be spelled out in the actual contract, officials said. 

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