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ZBA denies appeal for anaerobic digester, but says proposal ‘could be beneficial’ and urges Town Board to consider allowing use

The Riverhead Zoning Board of Appeals unanimously denied an appeal from a company proposing to build a facility that converts food waste into energy, known as an anaerobic digester, at the Enterprise Park at Calverton.

CEA Energy had sought an interpretation from the ZBA that the use is permitted in the Planned Industrial Park Zoning District after the town’s building and planning administrator, Jefferson Murphree, determined it was not. Current zoning prohibits garbage disposal dumps, landfill incinerators or transfer stations, but does not specifically mention recycling facilities or anaerobic digesters.

The ZBA, in the decision announced Thursday, said that the anaerobic digester falls within the prohibited uses in the PIP Zoning District. However, it did note that the Town Board should consider allowing the use in the zoning district.

The ZBA’s decision said the proposed use “could be beneficial to the taxpayer and provide renewable energy as well as an additional opportunity for recycling.”

It continued: “We encourage the Town Board to give it due consideration.”

Chairman Fred McLaughlin had previously said the ZBA feels the Town Board should make the decision.

Regardless of the ZBA decision, the applicant had already presented to the Town Board a request for a code change to make the facility allowable by special permit. The Town Board last month held a public hearing on a code change that would have prohibited the use.

The Town Board may now go forward with setting a second public hearing to allow the use.

“We’re going to go ahead and work with the Town Board as per the ZBA recommendation that a code be written to allow this in PIP by special permit of the Town Board so all the issues on an individual basis could be addressed,” Vic Prusinowski, a consultant for CEA Energy, said in an interview Friday. “The only thing we’re looking for is the opportunity to make that special permit application for the Town Board. In order to do that, the code would need to be amended.”

Mr. Prusinowski and Mark Lembo presented to the Town Board at the June 30 work session, a discussion on the proposal that grew out of the earlier public hearing on June 21.

The proposed facility would have the capacity to convert 200 tons of organic residue per day into biogas, a type of biofuel.

Town Board members questioned the applicants on a number of issues, including how the facility could process leaves collected in Riverhead Town and what type of community benefit the town would receive. Riverhead Town generates between three and five tons per day of organic residue, Mr. Lembo said. So the majority of waste would be generated within a 25-mile radius of the facility. Facilities such as commercial food wholesaler or distributor, industrial food manufacturer or processor or supermarkets would be required to use the digester as per New York State law.

The applicants said the Town would be receiving a portion of a tipping fees the facility receives. Mr. Lembo said he would need to see data from the town on how many tons of leaves the town produces before giving a specific answer on how much the facility could handle.

“I’m saying I could take 200 tons in, if half is going to be leaves, that’s fine with me,” Mr. Lembo said. “It gets processed the same way as any of the other food waste.”

Councilman Ken Rothwell questioned how long it would take to get rid of the leaves, given that only a small portion of leaves would be mixed into the system as its processed with other waste.

Mr. Lembo said whatever the mixture is, the facility can handle 200 tons per day and said he believed it would not be a problem to process whatever the town has.

The tipping fees and money obtained by selling gas to National Grid represent the main revenue streams for the company at the EPCAL site, Mr. Prusinowski said.

“I’m leery about this,” Councilman Tim Hubbard said. “The jury is still out for me on this. I have to do some more reading and research.”

Mr. Murphree said the Planning Department has been researching the anaerobic digesters. There are currently no similar facilities on Long Island, although one is proposed in Yaphank. Some board members also toured a facility in Connecticut, Mr. Hubbard said.

Matt Charters of the Planning Department, who has been researching the topic, asked at the June 30 work session whether biosolids such as affluent or sludge from a sewer treatment plant would be brought in. The applicants said that is not part of the proposal.

“We’re going to produce probably around 100,000 gallons of water every day because food is mostly water,” Mr. Lembo said. “What happens is we treat that water to the point of regulations and specifications of the Riverhead sewage treatment plant. That’s where that water will be going.”

Mr. Prusinowski added that they do not plan to produce fertilizer as a byproduct, which is currently a prohibited use in the zoning district.