Pictured Above: The proposed Oregon Road site of a BESS facility before public hearings were held early in 2023, before Southold’s BESS moratorium.

The Southold Town Board voted unanimously Tuesday, March 26 to approve a 12-month extension of a moratorium on Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS), to approve the removal of a longstanding provision allowing developers to ‘buy out’ of including affordable housing in their subdivision proposals, and to preserve a nearly 17-acre swath of farmland along the Main Road in Mattituck.

The BESS moratorium, initially slated to expire in April, comes just after the New York State Interagency Fire Safety Working Group, convened by Governor Kathy Hochul last year after fires at three lithium-ion BESS facilities throughout the state, issued a series of code recommendations to make these facilities more resilient against fire.

Southold, whose town code currently makes no mention of this emerging technology, had convened a task force to draft new BESS code recommendations in the spring of 2023.

“It’s been a very active committee. We’ve been meeting weekly,” BESS Task Force member Michael Macco told the town board at a public hearing March 26. “We support the extension of the moratorium. There’s still more work that needs to be done. I think we have a proposal ready for the town, but the proposal needs to be reviewed by the Town Attorney’s office. We expect there to be active public hearings, and we’re looking for substantial input from the fire departments.”

Mr. Macco said his group expects to have code recommendations ready for review by the town within 30 days.

“The North Fork does not present any location that is suitable for this volatile and challenging technology,” Laurel resident Tracy Levy told the Town Board, adding that she believes the developer who proposed a BESS facility in Cutchogue just prior to the moratorium believed they could “pull a fast one on the Town of Southold” to get easements through the town’s landfill property to tie the BESS facility into the electric grid.”

She added that she wants the town to tell New York State it’s wrong to force towns to accept this technology.

“They’re just ramming something down our throats,” she said.

“The Governor said Long Island, and the East End, is her number one pick for a site,” said Councilwoman Jill Doherty. “If we don’t do any code, then it’s going to be mandated on us. We want to make sure it’s developed the way we want it to be, not the way the governor wants it to be.”

Robert Dunn of Peconic said the technology is changing quickly and there are better technologies than lithium ion batteries.

“We’re hoping that other technology can come up to the par of lithium,” agreed Ms. Doherty.

Alix O’Mara lives on scenic Oregon Road not far from the proposed 60 megawatt BESS facility proposed there in 2022 by Key Capture Energy. She and her neighbors organized a group called the Friends of Oregon Road to fight the project last year.

She said she has a lot of questions about how the town would handle evacuation zones in the event of a fire, including the town transfer station, and about how Route 48 could be closed.

She added that Ms. Hochul’s task force did not study groundwater contamination.

“Extend it 12 months,” she said. “The community has not yet had a full opportunity to express its concerns.”

Representatives from both the Cutchogue Civic Association and the North Fork Environmental Council said they support extending the moratorium.

The extension passed in a 5-0 vote (Justice Louisa Evans was not present at the meeting).

Harvest Pointe in Cutchogue paid into the town’s housing fund rather than provide 12 units of affordable housing.

Ending the Affordable Housing Buyout

When Southold Town revamped its subdivision code to include a requirement for affordable housing in 2008, the town gave developers three options, Town Planning Director Heather Lanza told the board at a March 26 hearing.

Developers subdividing land into more than five lots in a standard subdivision had a choice between building affordable housing on 20 percent of those lots, building an equivalent amount of affordable housing elsewhere, or paying into a town fund that could be used for affordable housing.

In the years since, the provision has been used just twice, and both times, the developers chose the buyout, said Ms. Lanza.

One 12-unit standard subdivision yielded the equivalent of two affordable units, and the town’s legal settlement with what is now the Harvest Pointe condominium complex in Cutchogue yielded what would have been another 12 units. In both cases, the developers paid into a fund that now has about $1.3 million in it, said Town Councilwoman Jill Doherty.

“To date, no affordable homes have been paid out from the fund,” said Ms. Lanza. “In hindsight, if we did not offer the buyout option, we would have those 14 units already created in areas where new construction was already happening. The results, we hope, will be actual units, on the ground. This spreads it out amongst the hamlets, results in homeownership and simplifies and clarifies expectations for developers. I think it’s a good, positive change to the code.”

Southold-based land use attorney Pat Moore disagreed.

“We’re going backwards,” said Ms. Moore at the public hearing, adding that “developers were upset by it and neighbors were extremely upset by it” when the town drafted the initial code.

“It only created controversy and pain throughout the process, and things have not gotten better,” she said, adding that it was “social engineering” to put “a modest ranch or cape in the middle of a group of $2 million homes.

She urged the town to use the fund “to find modest homes that can be improved and sold back to people that qualify.”

Ms. Doherty said the town already has a housing plan in place to do just that, and also to provide down payment assistance grants and low interest loans. The town is in the process of finding a person to administer the housing plan and funding through the town’s new Community Housing Fund, she added.

Robert Dunn of Peconic, disagreed with Ms. Moore.

“If people get an opportunity to live amongst other people who might be doing a little better, it kind of raises everybody up,” he said. “We shouldn’t have ghettos, economic or cultural ghettos. I think it’s good that an Ivy Leager who works on Wall Street has to live next to a guy who works at the IGA. I think that’s a good thing.”

“As we look at the development pressures facing the town, the last thing we want to do, as a town board, is be forced to build high density housing to support the workforce in this community,” said Councilman Greg Doroski. “Without the workforce, I believe we don’t have a community. We have a number of different initiatives going… Any one of these initiatives alone is not enough to solve the problem here.”

“The goal is to have a diversity of housing stock,” agreed Councilwoman Anne Smith. “This does take a little bit of that goal and get it going. We have young people out there qualifying for mortgages who can’t find something in a range they can afford. I think it’s a step, and it’s something that I support.”

The board passed the measure in a 5-0 vote.

Preserving Farmland

The Town Board also agreed March 26 to purchase the development rights on most of a 16.79 acres of farmland at the southwest corner of the Main Road and Locust Avenue between Mattituck and Cutchogue for just over $1 million, or $71,000 per acre. Development rights will remain intact on two acres of the property, which could be used for a home or a winery.

Town Land Preservation Executive Assistant Lilly McCullough told the board the town has been working with the Peconic Land Trust on the acquisition from Russ McCall, owner of McCall Vineyards to “keep it an active farm, in agriculture.”

Peconic Land Trust Senior Project Manager Holly Sanford said later that the property had been among the holdings of Osprey’s Dominion Vineyards, and as that vineyard’s founder, Bud Koehler, began to look to divest of his holdings, Mr. McCall stepped in.

“He had two other offers on the table from developers,” said Ms. Sanford of Mr. Koehler. She added that he had approached the Land Trust about acquiring the property, but they weren’t in a position to purchase it.

“Russ McCall heard about his dilemma, and he felt strongly about trying to preserve the property,” said Ms. Sanford, who said she had been authorized to speak on Mr. McCall’s behalf. “He decided he would preemptively buy it to protect it, and turn it around to a farmer, someone who’s interested in cultivation of land. We’re using our list of farmers to spread the word.”

“Mr. McCall went above and beyond,” she said, adding that Mr. McCall has also helped to preserve other parcels of land along this corridor. “We have benefactors who do the best to protect their land and support our mission, but his is one of our biggest examples of conservation.”

The property, which is currently planted with Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, according to the listing agent at Douglas Elliman, contains 100 percent prime agricultural soils and borders farmlands and woodlands that have already been preserved, including Downs Farm Preserve, according to Ms. McCullough.

The property is listed at $975,000 once the development rights are sold.

Ms. Sanford said Mr. McCall has found a buyer who is interested in maintaining the vines on the site.

“This is one of those visible places in Southold Town,” said Bill Edwards of Mattituck at the public hearing. “I think this is a great coup for the town, and obviously for the McCall Family. I’ve been involved with land preservation in this town for a long time, and this is one of the real triumphs.”

Councilman Greg Doroski agreed, calling this purchase and another recent farmland purchase along Deep Hole Creek on New Suffolk Avenue “unique, innovative models in which the community has come together to partner with the town and other groups to do the important work of preservation. I’m very excited about this opportunity.”

“This is a voluntary program,” added Town Supervisor Al Krupski. “The McCalls have certainly left their mark on the community, and I thank them.”

The board voted 5-0 to accept the proposal.

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Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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