Zoning turns Brookhaven into hotbed for commercial solar

LONG ISLAND BUSINESS NEWS:

By: Claude Solnick – October 2, 2015

When Chicago­ based Invenergy searched for the best places for commercial solar power, it thought it found a kindred spirit in the Town of Brookhaven. The town’s plan specifically called for commercial solar or clustered housing along Route 25A. If only things were so simple.

In a twist on the “If you build it, they will come” idea, the slogan “If you zone it, they will seek to build” may be just as true.

Brookhaven created what’s known as a zoning overlay district, permitting commercial solar power in residential areas along a key road.

Its proclamation permitting commercial solar on large chunks of land succeeded in attracting projects that could make it a kind of sun in the solar system.

But opposition also is forming as the region at once becomes a magnet for commercial solar projects and opposition to them

As a result, Shoreham, the site of a long­ shuttered nuclear reactor, now finds itself in the midst of a showdown over commercial­ scale solar power.

“The town zoning calls for it,” Brad Pnazek, Invenergy’s business development manager, said of the Shoreham SolarCommons project. “It says it’s an applicable use for that land. The zoning code and the plans the town issued allow that use.”

Invenergy is seeking to build a 25­ megawatt solar panel installation with roughly 100,000 solar panels, enough to power 3,500 homes, on land that currently houses the Tallgrass Golf Course.

Utah ­based sPower has begun building a 9.5­ megawatt commercial solar project on the adjacent DeLalio sod farm on Route 25A powerful enough to supply electricity to 1,000 homes.

Both properties were part of the 320 acres that had been the proposed site of an ill ­fated mixed ­use development of 352 units of housing and 125,000 square feet of commercial space.

After community opposition and the failure to gain the approval of the Pine Barrens Commission, Brookhaven in March 2009 rescinded the planned development district designation from the land, which was zoned for one ­acre residential use.

The town in 2012 adopted the new overlay zoning for the area, including the golf course and sod farm owned by the DeLalio family, allowing clustered housing and solar energy projects to be built on the parcels.

While some are happy to let the sun shine on tapestries of solar panels, Fred Eisenbud, of counsel to Campolo, Middleton & McCormick in Ronkonkoma, is suing to stop sPower’s project on behalf of the Shoring Wading RiverAdvocates for Justice.

“I think preservation of open space is a critical issue,” said Eisenbud, representing local residents who believe commercial solar is anything but environmental. “It’s 2½ to three times the cost [of other sources of power]. Why aren’t they just encouraging people to put it on their roofs?”

Eisenbud argues that sPower’s project in an area zoned residential doesn’t leave as much open space as required.

Brookhaven regulations indicate up to 53 percent of a plot of land in the overlay district can be covered with panels, while the rest must remain open space. sPower argues the rules don’t specify that the space must be “contiguous,”so it’s counting the 14 feet between rows of panels as open space.

“If you read the statement of intent in the law, it says it’s to preserve open space and scenic vistas,” Eisenbud said.

A judge dismissed the sPower lawsuit and work has begun, although Eisenbud is appealing. Invenergy, meanwhile,hasn’t faced legal action, but the project also hasn’t been approved yet.

While opponents argue solar power is paving over open land, Invenergy says it can show that, beyond favorable zoning, the community supports these projects.

When Invenergy held an open house at the Majestic Gardens catering hall in Rocky Point on Sept. 16, most of the roughly 60 who showed up – after a mailer, Facebook and Twitter postings – supported its project.

Suffolk County Legis. Sarah Anker said she liked the fact that landscaping would help hide the panels from view.

“It was well received,” said Pnazek. “We had folks who were curious. They wanted to get educated on the project.” A survey of more than 350 likely voters in Brookhaven, done by Anderson Robbins Research for Invenergy, found a bipartisan 80 percent favored commercial solar farms in Brookhaven.

Roughly 85 percent of Democrats, 72 percent of Republicans and 89 percent of Independents supported commercial solar there.

“Clear majorities of Democrats, Republicans and Independents said they would be more likely to support a candidate who encouraged such development,” according to Invenergy.

While numbers weren’t as overwhelming in Shoreham, where Invenergy’s project would be, 60 percent there favored commercial scale solar.

“We think it shows that in Shoreham and greater Brookhaven, there’s majority support for the project,” Pnazek continued.

As Invenergy goes through the approval process, lawsuits could always lurk out there, if and when it gets the requisite go ­aheads.

“I have nothing to say about that,” Eisenbud said. “It’s up to the people who live around there.”

Still, litigation is always an option for anyone trying to block a project. Invenergy might have to go to court if residents file suit.

“Anybody can file an Article 78 and sue,” Pnazek continued. “We’re not saying we have a clear ride. No one has started anything with us yet.”

Invenergy hopes that out of sight may be, if not out of mind, enough to appease those who don’t want to wake up seeing not just sun, but panels harvesting the sun for electricity.

“It’s so hidden from view from the neighbors,” Pnazek said. “There’s so much buffering vegetation off our propertyline as well. We have a landscaping plan to buffer it even further.”

Many schools around Long Island are turning to solar, but Invenergy’s project could benefit schools in another way.

More than three ­quarters of those polled said they support solar development to raise revenue for schools, services and emergency responders.

Shoreham Solar Commons is expected to generate between $700,000 and $900,000 in local tax revenue, roughly 10times what Tallgrass Golf Course currently produces.

“We’re trying to develop where else we can go per town codes where there is infrastructure,” Pnazek added of other possible projects.

Meanwhile, rooftop solar projects are going up, avoiding the fight over open space, including more than 2,600 panels on Perfume Center of America’s Ronkonkoma building.

But Eisenbud continues to argue that even if you like solar panels, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

Brookhaven recently adopted rules allowing panels to cover 60 percent of properties in industrial areas, rather than the 53 percent in the area with the residential overlay. But in industrial areas, that’s defined as contiguous space.

“It sounds good, except for the definition of coverage,” Eisenbud said of protection for residential areas along Route25A. “Unless the appellate division reverses, properties with industrial zoned areas of Brookhaven have greater protection than residents do in the overlay zone.”

 

Found online: http://libn.com/2015/10/02/zoning-turns-brookhaven-into-hotbed-for-commercial-solar/