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Suffolk votes to pay off $10.8M settlement over solar panels

Suffolk Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), above in

Suffolk Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), above in March 2017, said he plans to investigate the Bellone administration's decision to block installation of solar panels in the Ronkonkoma LIRR station parking lot. Credit: Ed Betz

Suffolk lawmakers have approved a resolution to borrow $7.8 million to pay off a $10.8 million court-ordered judgment against the county for blocking a private firm from installing solar panels in the parking lot of the Ronkonkoma LIRR station.

A federal court magistrate last year said the move represented a breach of contract by Suffolk in its deal with San Diego-based EDF Renewable Development Inc. This summer, the county made a $3 million cash payment toward the judgment as compensation for solar panels, steel and other equipment the developer had purchased.

Democratic and Republican legislators said during debate Tuesday night that they planned to investigate the decision by the administration of County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, to block installation of the panels.

Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said he’d introduce legislation early next year to authorize a probe of the administration’s decision.

He said that when $2 million in interest costs on the borrowing and $2.7 million in lost revenue from expected lease payments are added, blocking installation of the panels cost the county more than $15 million.

The settlement was approved Tuesday night on a 13-5 vote. Legis. Thomas Barraga, of West Islip, was the lone Republican to vote yes.

“This is a travesty of the highest order. Somebody made the decision to breach this contract,” Cilmi said.

Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) said the county had no choice but to approve the settlement Tuesday night, but called it “a darned shame, and basically it’s lighting $10 million-plus on fire.”

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague), said he would support Cilmi’s call for an investigation next year.

In 2010, then-County Executive Steve Levy signed a 20-year, $120 million agreement with enXco of San Diego — later bought out by EDF — to lease space at seven county-owned parking lots, including in Ronkonkoma.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Anne Y. Shields ruled last year that county officials, beginning in January 2012 when Bellone took office, began “intentionally stalling the Ronkonkoma project and failing to communicate” with the contractor by canceling meetings and screening calls to avoid contact with the contractor.

The administration had argued the solar panels at the Long Island Rail Road station could interfere with the Ronkonkoma Hub project, a $600 million complex of 1,450 apartments, stores, restaurants and offices, that broke ground last week.

Cilmi, however, noted that the land where the solar carports were planned is on the south side of the rail station, while the Ronkonkoma Hub is on the north side of the tracks.

Suffolk County Attorney Dennis Brown said efforts made in consultation with the solar developer to find alternative locations for the panels were unsuccessful.

Bellone in a statement called the borrowing authorization, “a major step forward for the Ronkonkoma community as we move ahead with the most significant economic development project to occur on Long Island in a generation.”

The county has a pending lawsuit that seeks to have its insurance companies pay $7.8 million toward the judgment. The companies have refused, saying the county did not file a timely claim.

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