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In second vote, Planning Board approves preliminary site plan for proposed solar project

On its second chance, the Calverton Solar Energy Center (also known as NextEra) received preliminary site plan approval from the Riverhead Planning Board to build a 22.9-megawatt commercial solar energy production facility on two parcels of land — one on River Road and one on Edwards Avenue. 

The Planning Board voted 4-1 with board chair Stan Carey casting the lone no vote. The board previously voted 3-2 against the proposal at its April 15 meeting, with members Joe Baier and Richard O’Dea joining Mr. Carey in voting no.

The applicant has since made a number of changes to the plans, such as moving a proposed substation back 370 feet from the road right of way. 

“This has been a very flawed process right from the beginning,” Mr. Carey said Thursday. “It’s definitely, by far, the most questionable application that I have dealt with since being on this planning board. And I’m still not satisfied that all of the concerns and outstanding issues have been adequately resolved. For that reason, I vote no.”

In addition to the Planning Board’s vote on the site plan for NextEra, the Riverhead Town Board in December approved a special permit for the project. A part of that agreement was that NextEra would pay the town $1.5 million in “community benefits.”

The agreement called for NextEra to pay the town $750,000 within five business days of the issuance of the final approvals of both special permit and the final site plan, while the other $750,000 would be paid to the town within five business days from the issuance of the temporary certificate of occupancy.

The approval before the Planning Board Thursday is only a preliminary approval, and the final site plan approvals will require a number of other conditions be met. These include that the applicant demonstrate compliance with the requirements and standards of the Central Pine Barrens Commission Comprehensive Land Use Plan and obtain a letter of approval from that agency.

Riverhead Town and NextEra must enter into a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement, that contains a condition that PILOT payments “shall automatically increase proportionately in the event the improvements, or any part thereof, are altered, modified, replaced, and/or reconstructed such that the capacity to generate power is increased,” and that both sides agree upon and execute a Community Benefit Agreement with the Town of Riverhead.

NextEra also needs amended state Department of Environmental Conservation approvals for both a Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act permit and a freshwater waters permit. 

The majority of the public input at the Planning Board meetings on NextEra has been overwhelmingly opposed.

John Harrison of Riverhead started an online petition March 1 which now has more than 750 people in opposition.

“Many residents of Calverton spoke out against this process,” said Toqui Terchun of Calverton.

Former Councilwoman Barbara Blass pointed out a number of inconsistencies, including that the plan fails to show elevations and calls for a 25 foot landscaped buffer instead of the required 50 feet. She also questioned how planners could have reviewed new material that was received two days ago and written a draft approval resolution in that time.

NextEra is one of two large solar farms currently proposed in Calverton, while three more have already been approved.