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Former councilwoman says town ‘failed to show up’ on solar plan review

Did Riverhead Town drop the ball in reviewing a 36-megawatt solar farm on 290 acres in Calverton that recently received state approval?

Former Councilwoman Barbara Blass raised that issue at Wednesday’s Town Board meeting, saying that under state law, the town was entitled to “host community benefits,” such as a payment in lieu of taxes, and added that the town offered no comments on the proposal.

But Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said the town is working on those agreements now. 

The town had negotiated community benefit agreements with two prior solar farms: sPower 1, which was for $1 million in 2019, and NextEra, which was for $1.5 million this year. 

Because sPower 2 proposes more than 25 megawatts, review of the project was done by the state, rather than the town, under Article 10 of the State Public Service Commission.

A new state law approved last year allows the review of large projects like this to be reviewed under a newly-created Office of Renewable Energy Siting, or ORES, designed to fast track approval of large renewable energy projects under what’s known as a 95-C process.  

Ms. Blass, a former Planning Board chair, said the new law still allows for input from the town. 

“The 95-C process administered by ORES, it’s clearly designed to maximize host community involvement,” she said. “Unfortunately, Riverhead must’ve forgotten they were the host community.”

She said the municipality must file a statement indicating whether the proposed facility is designed to be cited, constructed, and operated and conforms with applicable local law and regulations, and it must do so within a specific period of time.

“I didn’t find any statement filed by the town of Riverhead and the time for filing has since passed,” Ms. Blass said. Town officials said this was done verbally.

“A review of the public hearing transcript revealed that no one from the town participated in the hearing,” Ms. Blass said. “The town had no comments on the loss of agricultural lands, visual impact, noise, potential health concerns from electromagnetic fields, setbacks, wetlands issues, loss of grassland habitats, cumulative impacts from all the other acres of solar power, local emergency response and preparedness, and this goes on and on.”

The town had no questions or comments, she said. 

“All of this was taking place in our town and we had no questions or concerns?” Ms. Blass said.

The town did resubmit the comments it had made on the project under the Article 10 process, but Ms. Blass said new information, such as the approval of the NextEra solar farm, had come to fruition since then.

“To my knowledge, and I could be wrong, there has been no substantive public discussion on this massive project covering 290 acres, no work session or meeting with community or civic groups to provide information about the project, including the potential impacts negative or positive,” she said.

The regulations require the applicant to provide host community benefits, such as payments in lieu of taxes or other payments or projects pursuant to a host community agreement.

Ms. Blass questioned whether the town can still negotiate these benefits after the application is approved.

“In my opinion, the town didn’t just drop the ball, it failed to even show up for the game,” she said.

Ms. Aguiar said the town’s attorneys are negotiating the host community benefit, and they will report to the Town Board. 

“I was told that after there’s an approval, we negotiate the PILOT payment,” Ms. Aguiar said. “I’m also told that as of yesterday, there was a draft PILOT.”

“I don’t know what happened with that, but this is exactly the kind of thing we should be talking about in work session,” said Councilwoman Catherine Kent, who is running against Ms. Aguiar for supervisor in November. 

She has complained that the board doesn’t discuss issues in work sessions. 

“We didn’t have approval power over this, but we should have participated,” she said. “We have no comments on the record here.”

Ms. Aguiar said the PILOT will be discussed at the next work session. 

Deputy Town Attorney Anne Marie Prudenti said that, in the siting permit that was issued, it provides the ability for the town to negotiate the community benefit agreement, including a PILOT.

She said she is drafting a community benefit agreement, and Town Attorney Bob Kozakiewicz is drafting a PILOT agreement.   

“I’m assuring the Town Board that we have the ability to negotiate and we are committed to the Town Board and we’re going to tackle it and address it as swiftly as possible,” Ms. Prudenti said. 

“It’s shameful and shocking that we weren’t weighing in on a project of this magnitude coming into our town,” Ms. Kent said. “The town also received $36,000 in ‘intervener funds’ that could have been used in that process.”

Ms. Prudenti said that some issues brought up in the comments the town made on the Article 10 application were addressed in the ORES decision.