Pictured Above: The crowd gathered outside Riverhead Town Hall on Tuesday afternoon.
As members of the Riverhead Town Board agreed to hire a new consultant to finish their comprehensive plan, residents gathered outside town hall Tuesday afternoon demanding a moratorium on development until the plan is complete, and urged the town not to move forward with a proposed battery energy storage system and a large anaerobic digester and a massive logistics warehouse facility in Calverton.
Wearing yellow safety vests to protect themselves from the hazards posed by several new industrial development proposals and carrying signs demanding a moratorium, a crowd of local people, many of them residents of Calverton, gathered outside Town Hall decrying the town board’s decision not to hold a public hearing on a moratorium, even though the town’s Planning Board earlier this fall voted unanimously to recommend the town enact the moratorium.
The crowd was driven by the proposal of a 641,000-square-foot logistics warehouse proposed on a 40-acre, industrially zoned site at the west end of Middle Road by NorthPoint Development currently being reviewed by the town’s Planning Board, and also by a proposed 100 megawatt battery energy storage facility proposed on a residentially-zoned parcel on Mill Road that has been used commercially since before it was zoned, and by a massive anaerobic digester that produces natural gas from food waste (and potentially sewage) proposed at the Enterprise Park at Calverton (EPCAL) that would need to import waste in order to be economically feasible. The potential redevelopers of EPCAL have also recently revealed plans to the town’s Industrial Development Agency for distribution and logistics buildings adjacent to the runways at the former Grumman location, which they had initially said they were planning to use for aeronautical research and development. CAT has promised the town to develop one million square feet of space at EPCAL, though recent plans call for development of ten times that square footage.
“The concentration and scale of individual development has the ability to forever change the landscape and quality of life” of Riverhead, said Calverton resident Linda Nemeth through a bullhorn outside the doors of Town Hall. “Developers have honed in on Riverhead’s zoning and planning failures and are poised to pounce.”
“The majority of the Town Board has ignored residents’ concerns the last two years,” said Phil Barbato of Jamesport, adding that he was puzzled that a recent town board work session took just ten minutes because the town supervisor said there was ‘nothing to discuss.’
“The magnitude of the development is staggering,” he said.
“This is a backwards approach to planning that will dramatically and irreversibly impact the residents of Riverhead,” said Mark Haubner of Aquebogue.
Former Town Councilwoman Catherine Kent urged the town to remember its agricultural heritage and the importance of preserving farmland, because “once the floodgates are open to development, it will be gone forever.”
She added that the town’s frequent excuse that it needs revenue from development to help keep down taxes has not resulted in lower taxes for residents. In fact, the town will need to pierce the state 2 percent tax levy cap to fund its operations next year.
“If this model was economically sustainable, we would be totally set after the development of Route 58,” she said. “Who will pay for it? We will.”
“Enough is enough,” said Greater Calverton Civic Association President Toqui Terchun. “Crowds of concerned, reasonable people have crowded into town hall for months. The time for a moratorium is now.”
She added the group had gathered 400 signatures on a petition asking for the moratorium.
While none of these specific development proposals were up for public hearing on Tuesday, a series of code changes involving battery energy storage facilities and anaerobic digesters were up for public hearing, along with a resolution on the agenda for the town to hire a new consultant to finish its comprehensive plan.
Resident after resident came to the podium urging the three of five board members who were in attendance (Councilman Frank Beyrodt was not in attendance, and Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar was not feeling well, according to Deputy Supervisory Devon Higgins) to not consider any code changes until the consultants finish the comprehensive plan, and to put a moratorium in place while they do the work.
Many were concerned about the safety of the battery energy storage system proposed for Mill Road, a site where it would not be allowed if the code changes proposed Tuesday afternoon were put into effect. Much of their concern was with regard to the safety of lithium ion battery energy storage systems in light of several recent fires, many of which were caused by small consumer-grade lithium ion batteries for ebikes and small machinery, which are not held to the same safety standards as industrial grade battery energy storage systems.
The site backs up to the Glenwood Village 55+ mobile home community, many of whose residents were outraged to find out this was being built in their backyard, and were equally outraged that the developer had drummed up 100 supportive signatures from their neighbors by walking a petition through their neighborhood extolling the virtues of the project.
Paul Rogers, of the Energy Safety Response Group, who is consulting Hexagon Energy, the company proposing the Mill Road storage system, is a former New York City firefighter who was tasked with developing the city’s response to battery energy storage systems, and eventually became involved with drafting the 2021 international fire code regarding battery energy storage, which was adopted by New York State in 2019. He also provides battery fire training to local firefighters through the Suffolk County Fire Academy.
“He said that all new Battery Energy Storage Systems, known as BESS, are now required to go through strict Underwriters Lab testing to ensure their products can withstand the harsh conditions that have caused fires in early BESS systems.
He also sits on the Federal Aviation Administration’s lithium ion safety panel.
“There are a lot of counterfeit batteries coming into the United States and the quality assurance is terrible. They’re going into consumer products that are going up on fire,” he said, adding that BESS battery cells “have to be tested by a nationally recognized testing laboratory,” and that they use a far more stable chemistry than early lithium ion batteries.
After several hours of public comment, the board members present closed the public hearings, holding them open for written comment until Dec. 30, and the three members voted unanimously to hire BFJ Planning to finish the Comprehensive Plan, at a cost of $422,000.
“Why on earth are you paying them to study and plan for land uses that you have already moved forward on by proposing new zoning codes to implement these uses?” asked Kathy McGraw of Calverton via Zoom. “I believe all the people in this room would like an answer. It’s a total waste of taxpayer money.”
“Decisions of this magnitude should not be made in a vacuum,” said Claudette Bianco of Calverton. “We have to live with the consequences of your decisions…. Either you do not understand the gravity of this situation or you just don’t care about our hamlet and its future.”
“We have no problem with learning about new technology. We will have to face a future with some of this technology,” said Linda Nemeth. “My point is you have had experts and you will have experts guiding you. I don’t understand why you have put cart before the horse.”
Councilman Tim Hubbard, the one board member who has supported the moratorium, again urged his fellow board members to reconsider after hearing nearly four hours of public comment.
“The developers are not going to go away. We are going to need these things, but that doesn’t mean just let them go wherever they want to go,” he said. “Common sense tells me we have a comprehensive plan so close to be voted on. :et it do its job. What is the rush? The developers don’t own us. We work for the people. The people have spoken. Yes, we’re going to have warehouses in this town. Are we going to stop some? Maybe. I implore my fellow board members, please reconsider. Once they’re built, it’s too late. We need to pump the brakes, let the experts do their job and get the comp plan finished. That’s all I’m asking.”
“All of us appreciate you coming out,” he told the crowd.
Councilman Ken Rothwell disagreed, saying he believes the Comprehensive Plan was left in such bad shape by the town’s prior consultants that he doesn’t believe the new consultants could finish it during the span of a brief moratorium.
“The work done by the prior company was completely inadequate,” he said, adding that the town was forced to do a tax increase this year and “there are a lot of projects on hand that we need to support the tax base. This town desperately needs to increase its tax base.”