The Virginia company proposing to build a 100-megawatt battery energy storage facility on Mill Road presented its proposal to the Riverhead Planning Board Thursday — a presentation described by the town’s head planner as merely intended to educate the board and the public about battery energy storage in general rather than a typical discussion of a site plan application in front of the board for review.
Battery energy storage is not currently an allowed use under the town zoning code. In fact, the company’s site plan application for the 3.6-acre residentially zoned site on Mill Road has already been denied by the Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree for that reason.
However, the applicant, Riverhead Energy, a subsidiary of Hexagon Energy of Charlottesville, Virginia, has also filed an application to the Riverhead Zoning Board of Appeals seeking a special exception to allow the battery energy storage facility at the site. The special exception application asks the ZBA to substitute one nonconforming use for another nonconforming use, described as “less intense,” according to documents filed with the planning department last month.
On July 22, the day Murphree wrote the site plan application denial letter, Planner Matt Charters penned a notice of incomplete application letter to the applicant detailing items it must submit to the planning department before its site plan application could be considered complete.
Thursday, Adam Stanek, Hexagon’s senior development manager, told Planning Board members that battery energy storage facilities purchase energy during off-peak hours to store for later resale back to the utility company at peak hours, at a higher price than what they paid for it. The systems allow for consistent supply from renewable energy sources and, overall, lower customer costs, reduce stress on the grid, and reduce the need for the large fossil-fuel generators known as “peaker plants” that provide electricity at times of peak usage.
Stanek was accompanied at Thursday’s planning board meeting with Hexagon’s local attorney, Chris Kent of Farrell Fritz, as well as engineers and planning consultants from VHB Engineering. Farrell Fritz and VHB prepared Hexagon/Riverhead’s site plan application, full environmental assessment form and engineered site plan drawings, which were filed with the planning department July 14, along with a $5,000 check for the site plan application fee.
Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said she was “appalled” that the application was presented to the Planning Board Thursday though the use is not allowed by the town zoning code to be sited anywhere in the Town of Riverhead — and even as the Town Board is working to pass legislation to regulate the siting and operation of battery energy storage facilities in the town. The Town Board held a public hearing on a first draft of the code on Tuesday evening.
An angry town supervisor said today that as she watched a video of Thursday’s Planning Board meeting, “it became crystal clear what was being delivered to the board and the residents was a pre-submission planning application, with many of the required documents, studies, certified documents” in the presence of the applicant’s attorney, engineers and architect.
Aguiar called the presentation Thursday a “grave misrepresentation of public trust.”
Jamesport resident Barbara Blass, a former Town Board member, longtime Planning Board member and its former chairperson, is often at odds with Aguiar when she takes the podium in Town Hall to comment on pending applications and actions. Not so on this issue. Blass, too, expressed outrage at the process being followed. Her comments after the Hexagon presentation at Thursday’s Planning Board meeting were in step with Aguiar’s assessment.
Noting that the applicant had a pre-submission conference with planning department staff in October, Blass asked why the effort to educate the Planning Board and the public — which Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree said was the purpose of Thursday’s presentation — was put off till mid-August.
“Why wait for this applicant to go through the application process still underway, but nonetheless provide fully engineered site plan drawings by engineering company VHB, pay the application fee, fill out the long environmental assessment form and everything else that goes along with the site plan application, including notarized signatures, and suggest that this was on your agenda to educate the board and the public on the technology?” Blass asked.
“We saw a draft proposed code from staff in April, why not enlighten the board then?” she asked.
“And who would consider a public information forum at 3 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, when the public can’t even participate in the discussion?” Blass continued. “I’m sorry, but the word disingenuous comes to mind.”
Rather than wait for the Town Board’s code amendment to proceed to its conclusion and final adoption, Hexagon/Riverhead, with the apparent consent of the building and planning administrator, is seeking a special exception for the use from the Zoning Board of Appeals. If the special exception use is granted by the ZBA, the applicant could obtain site plan approval and proceed to construction without the Town Board special permit required by the pending code amendment, even though the property is not located in one of the zoning districts where it would be allowed if the proposed code is adopted.
Under the draft code on which the Town Board had an initial public hearing Tuesday, battery energy storage system facilities would be allowed by Town Board special permit only in the Industrial A, Industrial C, Planned Industrial Park, Agricultural Protection, and Residence A-80 zoning use districts.
But the proposed site on Mill Road is zoned Residence B-40, so the proposed BESS facility could not be sited there if the code is adopted in its current form.
“How and why would an applicant continue to invest in developing a non-compliant application unless he was aware that at some point there was some light at the end of the tunnel for him?” Blass asked at the Planning Board meeting Thursday.
“Instead of sound planning principles in play here, we seem to have a well-orchestrated strategy which flies in the face of responsible, trustworthy and professional behavior.”
New York State is promoting battery energy storage systems to meet renewable energy goals by enhancing the effectiveness of commercial solar energy production facilities, which generate most of their energy in the middle of the day, an off-peak time for residential energy use, Hexagon representatives told the board.
The facility would help maximize the benefit of solar farms located in Calverton, Stanek said. While the proposed site is zoned residential, the proposed battery energy storage system “fits the local aesthetic, in that the land is currently being used for industrial use.”
The Mill Road location is adjacent to the railroad track on the south and a large self-storage facility on the north, and is near a LIPA substation located south of Main Street. Hexagon Energy’s Stanek said redevelopment of the site will result in additional tax revenue for the town.
The proposed location on Mill Road also sits adjacent to Glenwood Village, a high-density manufactured homes community.
The property is currently improved with warehouse-type buildings that would be demolished to make way for the energy facility, according to documents filed by the applicant.
The proposed facility would be the largest of its kind to date on Long Island. A small facility is located in the Town of East Hampton and a utility-scale facility is proposed closer to New York City. Hexagon is not involved in either of those facilities, Stanek told the Planning Board.
Blass also took issue with the idea that the battery energy storage facility is a “nonconforming use” that can be substituted for another nonconforming use by a special exception from the ZBA.
The ZBA has the authority to grant a special exception to substitute one nonconforming use for another, Blass said, but “but the use has to be lawfully permitted somewhere in the town, otherwise it’s not a nonconforming use, it’s a nonexistent use,” Blass said.
Murphree, the town’s top planner and its zoning officer, disagrees.
In response to questions from RiverheadLOCAL on Tuesday, Murphree said in an email that “any use not explicitly listed or interpreted to be permitted by the Town’s Zoning Official [Murphree] is considered to be a non-conforming use. It does not have to be permitted ‘somewhere else’ within the zoning code to be considered non-conforming.”
The applicant intends to seek the special exception from the ZBA, Murphree wrote, and the planning department put the application on the Planning Board’s agenda Thursday for discussion purposes only to “inform the Board about the nature [of the] subject application and its proposed use, as well as [to] outline the review process of the application going forward.”
The application remains incomplete pending receipt of the additional information outlined in Charters’ July 22 letter, Murphree wrote in the email.
Murphree continued: “Again, we are only trying to be pro-active and educate the Board and the public on a new use.”
Alek Lewis contributed reporting.
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