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Town Board to decide whether proposed solar farm in Calverton requires environmental review

After a lengthy discussion at Thursday’s work session, the Riverhead Town Board ultimately decided to hold a public hearing on Nextera’s proposed special permit for a 22.9-megawatt solar farm on 97 acres in Calverton.

The hearing on the special permit application will take place after the board decides whether to require an environmental impact study of the project, according to Councilman Tim Hubbard. That decision was made after the board discussed the issue with legal counsel in executive session.

The issue was put on the work session agenda Thursday in light of a letter sent to the board — and read aloud by Councilwoman Catherine Kent at the Jan. 7 board meeting — from certified environmental professional Jeff Seeman, who said in essence, that the town was setting a precedent by not requiring Nextera to do an environmental impact study of their project, when the town had previously required sPower-1, a similarly sized solar farm, to do an environmental study. 

sPower-1 is a 20-megawatt solar farm on 110 acres.

Ms. Kent said all of the existing and proposed solar farms are slated for the Calverton ZIP code.

“It’s very important to look at the overall impact of all these solar farms because it is all being put into one area of our town,” Ms. Kent said.

There are about 600 acres of solar farms either built or proposed in Calverton, she said.

Solar farms are only permitted in industrial zones in Riverhead, but much of the industrial land containing solar farms in Calverton was being used for sod farms.

The board also received a reply letter from Nextera’s attorney, Steven Losquadro, and it heard from town building and planning administrator Jeff Murphree and planning aide Greg Bergman, defending their recommendation that no study was needed from Nextera. 

In addition to sPower-1 and Nextera, other solar projects in the Calverton ZIP code are STR, a 3-megawatt facility on three acres; sPower’s initial project, a 6.3-megawatt facility on 45 acres; and sPower 2, a 36-megawatt plant proposed for 291 acres and under the review of the state public service commission rather than the town.

Mr. Murphree said there are errors in Mr. Seeman’s letter, since the town did not require STR or the first sPower project to do an environmental study, as Mr. Seeman’s letter states.

Mr. Murphree said solar farms were not even considered in 2003 when the town last updated its master plan. Since then, he said, there are issues related to global warming and sea level rising that the town has faced, such as Superstorm Sandy and the flooding on Horton Avenue. 

He said solar energy doesn’t product noise or traffic or odors, and is not hazardous to humans.

Councilman Frank Beyrodt, who took office on Jan. 1, said the solar projects are all in Calverton because that’s where the power station is.

Mr. Hubbard said solar power doesn’t produce many jobs, and there is also a concern about how they will be disposed and decommissioned in 20 or 30 years, and whether there will be health concerns as a result of that. 

“That’s a problem for me,” he said. He added that if solar energy doesn’t reduce electric rates in Riverhead, “why are we stuck getting all these solar farms?”

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, who works in real estate, said that people are having problems disposing old rooftop solar panels.

“We have a saying in the agriculture industry,” said Mr. Beyrodt. “And that is, once a foundation goes in, it will never be farmed again. That’s not the same with solar. Solar can be removed when it is deemed unnecessary and the soils can be reverted back to the agricultural use.”

Mr. Hubbard and Mr. Beyrodt said they have concerns but would vote to not require the environmental study since that’s what the town’s experts are recommending.

Mr. Hubbard and Councilwoman Jodi Giglio both said they feel that after this application, the Town Board should remove solar plants as a permitted use in the town’s zoning.